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Amazon Brand Registry Boosts Anti-Counterfeit Initiatives

LAS VEGAS— Even as its new Brand Registry program to thwart counterfeiters and other intellectual property violators goes live, Amazon.com has been demonstrating that the e-tailer has adapted its thinking about brand security issues, characterizing them, critically, as customer service concerns.

Customer service is at the core of Amazon’s mission statement and its stated approach to business. In characterizing IP violations as such, the e-tailer is signaling that infringement is a central consideration.

In the past, many brand owners involved with the company have complained that Amazon’s procedure to remove counterfeit products, particularly from its marketplace operation, was too difficult and slow to be effective. However, with Registry and the forthcoming Transparency program, Amazon is putting tools in the hands of manufacturers and consumers that can help assure that shoppers are getting the real deal when they shop for branded products.

At the recent ShopTalk trade show, Amazon made a point of its brand security initiatives. In a general session featuring the retailer, Peter Faricy, Amazon vp/marketplace, said that the company got the message from brand owners that protection of their intellectual property was “very critical.”

After the general session, Amazon representatives remained in the ballroom where it was held to discuss the Registry initiative and invite brand owners and others to view a demonstration of how it works.

The Amazon representatives made a point in discussions with HomeWorld Business that the company is using technology and collaboration to pressure the range of IP cheats off its website, emphasizing the point that counterfeit or misrepresented products can undermine the consumer experience with Amazon, an unacceptable outcome of any transaction. They pointed out that consumers receiving unsatisfactory products from illegitimate sources directly clashes with what the e-tailer set out in its often touted mission statement: “Our vision is to be earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”

Amazon’s intention to use technology and fresh initiatives to combat IP violation was noted in the HomeWorld Business cover story in the March 13 issue, which reviewed challenges and potential solutions regarding brand counterfeiting, product misrepresentation and related infringements.

In addition to Registry, which officially rolled out April 15, the Amazon representatives outlined another tool the e-tailer is developing to help deter IP violations: Transparency. Although it will roll out later, Transparency will allow manufacturers to identify products so that they can more easily detect items that are in IP violation as they emerge on the Amazon company-run and marketplace website and to remove them expeditiously. Shoppers also will be able to access Transparency data so they can check if the products they are purchasing are genuine or fake.

In the ShopTalk session, Faricy said Amazon had applied its technological resources to establish the Transparency service as a means to identify products as they move through the Amazon supply chain, whether the e-tailer handles the items through its own fulfillment or otherwise, making it easier to spot fake or misrepresented items that pop up where the legitimate merchandise doesn’t belong.

Faricy’s presentation included an on-stage discussion with two Amazon marketplace participants: Randy Hetrick, CEO and founder of fitness equipment maker TRX, and Dayna Martin, president and founder of Stand Steady.

Of the two, Amazon actually partnered with TRX in a lawsuit targeting parties that had, the plaintiffs contend, violated TRX IP rights. Hetrick told the ShopTalk audience, “There’s concern out there in the online marketplace in general and it’s definitely justified. If you build a brand that has any level of success, you’re going to get a whole variety of my toos, from the outright counterfeits to IP infringing knock offs, and one of the challenge with a platform like Amazon— and really the frictionless interface that Amazon created, which I don’t think initially anticipated the way that it could be gamed by fraudsters— that can become a problem.”

Because TRX was an early marketplace pioneer, the company was targeted by IP infringers before, as Hetrick related, anyone really understood the vulnerabilities inherent in the selling model. He suggested that Amazon awareness of the issue and of its role in dealing with it have evolved with the e-tailer’s understanding of the challenges and potential consequences arising from IP infringement.

“Amazon really has been a strong partner with TRX and other brands in trying to combat this,” Hetrick said. “It’s not an easy task, because these cats are wily, but Amazon has put into place a whole bunch of protective initiative in addition to its business initiatives to really help protect brands.”

Hetrick added that the lawsuit Amazon initiated with TRX demonstrates that the e-tailer’s disposition as to IP infringement has evolved for the better.

“That’s pretty non-traditional in terms of partnering. I found them to be very earnest at Amazon in their efforts to protect brands,” Hetrick said.

Martin, who produces standing desks and was involved early with Registry, concurred that Amazon’s recent initiatives will provide new means of dealing with not only outright counterfeiters but companies that, accidentally or otherwise, infringe on IP rights.

“I can definitely attest to that,” she said. “We love Brand Registry. We’ve had companies that sell similar  products and don’t understand that certain words are our IP, and they’ll use our words. We’ll work with Amazon to get those words removed.”

Amazon would not comment on the substance of Registry procedures prior to the launch, even if it did provide sneak peaks, however, it wasn’t long before observers of the company revealed and evaluated the new program.

For example, CPC Strategy in a blog post, pointed out that those qualified to participate in registry included manufacturers and brand owners as well as distributors, resellers and other individuals or companies who have the written authorization from the manufacturer or brand owner to manage brand content on Amazon.

Registry is a two-week process, CPC noted, and requires a company, listing, product and trademark information. Brands must provide an image of product packaging with branding visible, an image of the product with branding visible and a link to an active website that displays the brand or products involved. Brand owners have to select a key attribute., which should be an existing product identifier for the branded products. When Amazon approves a Registry application, the brand owner must provide a unique attribute for each product involved.

CPC suggested using UPCs, EANs or JANs as the key attribute, but a manufacturer part number, a model number, a catalog number or a style number qualifies. Good attributes are unique to the product and never change. A brand’s distributors and customers should be able to find the attribute easily whether sought on packaging, on a website or in a catalog. The key attribute should be unique for all products registered.

In its seller service section, under training and tutorials, Amazon offered a video about Registry. The company did not specifically make a point of combatting IP violators by using Registry, characterizing more broadly as a way brand owners can list and manage products on Amazon and, over time, gain greater authority over content as it appears on the site. The video did point out, though, that the service would not restrict other sellers from offering a company’s brand on Amazon.com. The e-tailer did, however, highlight the ability of brand owners to identify products without a UPC or EAN using key attributes, such as a part or style number, underlining the need for key attributes to be unique to a particular SKU and unchanging, and readily discoverable on packaging, on a website or in a catalog.

The Registry won’t end IP infringement but can expedite action using existing Amazon programs. However, by developing new programs that address the issue, the e-tailer is asserting that it will make it more difficult for counterfeiters and other brand rights violators to use its auspices for their activities. At least, now, Amazon is providing evidence that it wants to see the effort through.