Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Brand Owners Need to Do More to Stop Spam

Spam, like cigarette smoke, is annoying. Lawmakers and lawyers have the power to reduce it, permanently, using similar methods.

Laws work best when the ultimate perpetrators of a crime are easily identifiable, the law is clear, and the penalties are heavy. We know who the assumed perpetrators of spam are - the shady distributors of products sold under major brands - products that may or may not be the advertised item. We know these spammers are criminals. But what about the role of the brand owners in all this? Are they the "ultimate perpetrators", or the victims?

In my view, spam persists because current laws target spam network operators directly, not third party spending by brand owners. I believe lawmakers need to step in and incentivize the brands owners to act against third party spending on spam networks, and unauthorized use of their brands - because brand owners are not exactly setting the world on fire when it comes to aggressive prosecution of spammers. Spam isn't exactly slowing down.

Why are brand owners not fighting spam more aggressively? The owners of the brands that show up in our inboxes oftentimes profit from the spam game, via increased brand recognition and the sale of their products. Is there really an incentive for brand owners to step in and stop all this advertising?

One way lawmakers could instantly reduce spam is to extend the CanSpam initiatives to all third party spamming actions involving brand marketing and require brand owners to "follow the money" and audit their sales and marketing channels for compliance. That's the first action that needs to take place - have brand owners account for not just their own marketing activities, but all third-party activity related to their brand, and the spamming of consumers.

The second thing that needs to happen is that shareholders need to start holding executives accountable for brand management - because one of these days, the patience of the consumer is going to run out, and these brands may suffer an extreme, or even fatal, loss of equity. Shareholders with an ability to think long-term may want to consider the negative effects of a rampant spamming campaign featuring their brand - and the current temperature of the public - and start asking questions of senior executives at their annual meetings.

Currently, brand owners don't do enough to protect these shareholder assets - few even attempt to stop spammers from using their trademarks - even spammers that use their brands to sell other products continue to abuse brands with impunity. And although some brand owners have filed law suits against known spam perpetrators, such actions are few and far between.

If brand owners don't act, I predict things will get even more interesting on the legal front. It isn't hard to imagine an increasing number of class actions against brand owners by consumers sick of spam. When the first lawyers were hired by people made ill from cigarettes, the lawyers didn't waste time suing their place of employment, or their doctor - they went "upstream" to the cigarette manufacturers, and as a result of those efforts, profits are now being redistributed from the tobacco companies back to those affected by their products.

It's a proven strategy. It has enabled the world to get rid of tobacco smoke in interior environments. The mere threat of this tactic worked to rid New York City fast-food places of transfats. This approach may even work to rid us consumers of spam. Stay tuned.

Brand owners, if you have not already done so, you need to start aggressively fighting the unauthorized use of your brands using the courts, and international copyright laws and trade agreements (need an example of best practices? Disney is great at fighting unauthorized use of their brands, worldwide.) Then you need to follow the money funding the spam campaigns that feature your brands, audit your marketing partners and distributors, put an injunction in place against non-compliant parties, and tell the world about what you've just done.

Become part of the solution - your brand will become more valuable as a result.

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