How Links has removed £200m of fake jewels from web in 12 months.
In just 12 months Links of London hauled in £200m of fake jewellery being sold online. Rachael Taylor meets the brand’s head of online Caroline Rolfe and Charlie Abrahams of brand protection agency MarkMonitor to find out how one British brand is battling a world wide web full of fakes.
When the Links of London Sweetie bracelet shot to fame it made the British brand a global name, but it also brought with it an unwanted side affect – the attentions of thousands of counterfeiters ready and waiting to rip off the iconic bracelet and pass it for genuine.
These counterfeiters were not just operating at local car boot sales and market stalls, but instead were harnessing the power of the internet to compete head to head with Links of London for sales, and it’s a battle that the British brand is still fighting today.
“There are two schools of thought on the type of people who buy fake Links of London products,” muses Links of London head of online Caroline Rolfe, who was brought in to head up the brand’s web division 18 months ago from beauty brand Estee Lauder. “The first are people who think ‘I want to be trendy but I can’t afford it so I’ll buy a rip off’; you can’t convert those guys. The second is a customer who wants to buy Links of London and is out for a deal and doesn’t know our product well enough to know that they are shopping in the wrong place.”
Rolfe says that the counterfeiters operating online are using hugely sophisticated tactics to not just pass off product that looks like Links of London but to do so on websites that mimic the real thing very closely. She recalls a moment in her career at Links that she says “still makes me shiver” when the brand had spent months painstakingly developing a brand new site only for a near-exact replica to pop up two weeks later.
“As a customer you can make a distinction between buying in a gift shop or a market or a brand store, but online they are very clever at making something look like it’s not,” says Rolfe.
As well as designing websites to look like Links of London sites, the domain names are a crucial tool for counterfeiters – 30% of all searches made online include a brand name term, and 14% of people searching online end up at a website other than the one they had set out to find.
URLs such as Linksoflondonstore.com, Linksoflondon.uk.net and uk-linksoflondon.com are popping up all the time, with some single counterfeit sites topping more than 40,000 hits a month and more than 95,000 links back into the site.
Links of London has been scrabbling to get these sites shut down as soon as it discovers them and Rolfe says that the brand has learned a lesson about buying up URLs that could be harnessed by counterfeiters.
She says: “The instant thought is why doesn’t Links own those URLs? We’ve learned a lesson. We should have pre-registered URLs but we didn’t think people would register these sort of names. Were also a luxury brand and don’t discount so we wouldn’t ever have conceived of owning [a site called] Cheap Links of London. But we now own them as we know customers don’t shop like that. They will always be out for a bargain, so what do they type into Google? Cheap Links of London. And what do they get? A counterfeit site.”
The fall outs from buying from a counterfeit website are vast, according to Rolfe, including skin complaints from jewellery with a high nickel content, receiving different products to the one bought – in one case she recalls a customer who purchased Links of London jewellery but received a replica Omega watch, sub-standard quality jewellery that breaks straight away or just a simple case of customers entering their credit card details and never receiving anything for their money.
While the brand has no responsibility over counterfeit goods bought online Rolfe says that it tries to work with customers who have bought fake goods by accident where possible, as many people only find out they have bought fake jewellery when they call the brand’s headquarters to complain about quality.
“It’s not our responsibility to help those guys but we hold their hands and we talk to them about what we do so they walk away from their bad experience with a good experience of our brand,” she says. “Even though we haven’t supplied the product, most people would associate that experience with us if we didn’t do anything about it.”
Rolfe says that the sheer vastness of the internet makes policing counterfeit Links of London websites nearly impossible, but the brand made a decision to stand firm on counterfeiting and put up a fight.
“You can’t completely eradicate it but you can show the counterfeiters that you are doing something about it and you can tell your customers that you are doing something about it,” she says.
In a bid to step up the battle against online fakes Links of London started working with MarkMonitor in 2011, a company that specialises in online brand protection and has worked with many leading brands including Fred Perry, Nokia, Levi Strauss & Co and New Balance, as well as a number of banking clients.
The results, according to Rolfe, have been spectacular. In the first 12 months of working together MarkMonitor has had £200 million-worth of fake Links of London products removed from sale as a result of trawling the internet and searching for fake sites. The operation has not only helped to remove counterfeit goods from the market, it also provided a direct boost to Links of London’s takings.
When battling with a world wide web full of fake sites, Links had to invest heavily in directing people to its genuine site. After joining forces with MarkMonitor Links of London could pay less per click – 41% less in a year – as there was less competition out there. Its genuine website also received a 50% boost in traffic.
These impressive stats also yielded from a strategy introduced by Rolfe six months ago to bring MarkMonitor into the same room with the agency the brand used to handle Links of London’s paid search operations.
“It’s really similar for both agencies; for the paid search agency it’s who’s paying against us and for MarkMonitor its who is selling counterfeit products,” she explains. Rolfe describes the collaboration between the two agencies as yielding “incredible results” thanks to each agency giving the other a fresh perspective and new ideas. “If I can see a 50% increase in traffic and 41% decrease in CPC [cost per click] then you can see that I’m going to make a lot more money on my site. For the future we can absolutely use this joint approach and look further into how to take these websites down.”
As well as fighting against the hundreds of fake websites that pop up daily by ways of threatening letters and asking sites such as Alibaba and Ebay to remove sellers, MarkMonitor and Links of London also undertook a full legal procedure after discovering a single man who owned 65 URLs leading to websites selling fake Links of London goods. The scale of this one-man operation was enormous – the traffic flowing to his sites was equal to that of Links of London’s genuine site.
“MarkMonitor did a lot of research and hard work to find this guy who was in China and sold a large variety of counterfeit goods,” says Rolfe. “The way we did it was to order on his site and find out how that works and then actually track him down and get the police in.”
One of the men behind MarkMonitor is Charlie Abrahams, vice-president and manager for EMEA. He works with a large variety of clients, for each of which he has similar tales to that of Links of London. Abrahams says that the internet is an important battle ground for luxury brands.
“Most of the major luxury brands are delivering up to 10% of their business online and that makes it a very important medium on which to protect one’s business and one’s reputation,” he says. “If people go online and look at a brand website then they will spend 37% more than if they just went into the store.”
Abrahams says that the anonymity of the internet is not only a factor that encourages counterfeiters but also one that spurs consumers to do things that they perhaps would not be so quick to do offline. He refers to a statistic that claims that 18% of women have illegally downloaded an e-book as an example of this; it would seem unlikely that 18% of women would steal a hard copy of a book from a high street store.
“[The internet] is a great place to do business but it’s a great place to do crime,” says Abrahams. “It’s a great place for me to build a website and pretend to be Links of London or Harrods or Burberry. A consumer is shopping on the basis of a photograph and photographs are easy to get. The part that Mark Monitor plays is we deal with that for [brands]. We have all sorts of technology out there looking for these infringements and then we have a systematic way of removing these.”
While the partnership with MarkMonitor has been bearing fruit, Rolfe is under no illusion that the battle is not over and probably never will be, but the brand is determined to keep fighting.
“I’ll use my whack-a-mole theory,” she says. “You whack one mole and another comes up – that’s absolutely how brand protection is, but if you’re not in the game and you don’t have a hammer they just keep popping up. MarkMonitor are our hammer.”
This article was taken from the May 2012 issue of Professional Jeweller magazine. To read a digital version of this issue click here.