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If You Knew What Was Happening to Your Brand Online, You’d Never Sleep

The internet is the wild west with lots of outlaws and too few sheriffs.

In an environment where anything goes, weapons come in many forms and culprits are often anonymous, apparel and footwear companies must remain vigilant when it comes to protecting their brand and its products.

At last week’s AAFA Executive Summit in Washington, D.C., Pilar Toro, brand protection manager of Red Wing, explained how the footwear company has developed a new strategy for dealing with everything from pricing violations to counterfeits.

“For us, brand protection is not so much enforcing something but making sure we have the right measures, policies and procedures in place to counteract risks and threats to the value of the brand,” Toro said. And that value, she said, extends far beyond intellectual property. Toro looks at the company’s 100-plus years in the market as one reason to be vigilant—and she counts the next 100 years as another.

While Red Wing offers some fashion and outdoor product, the brand has built its reputation on safety footwear. And being in the work category means customers rely on the company’s products in a different way. “We protect people’s lives so when you get to that point, the responsibility is big and that’s why it’s so pivotal for us to protect our brand,” Toro said.

To that end, Red Wing has become proactive about identifying and neutralizing threats—both current and future. It’s the issues that could arise that keeps Toro up at night, which is why Red Wing is constantly scanning the horizon for what’s next.

“Enforcement is very important but visibility is even more important. You need to understand where your product is being offered, how is it being offered and how is it flowing around the world. That’s the only way you’re going to be able to identify issues,” she said. “If you have visibility into what’s happening out there, it’s easier for you to not only consider enforcement but consider making business moves [like] coming up with new policies that would prevent something.”

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To position the company to take a holistic approach to brand protection took organizational change. To shift the mindset from simply policing, Red Wing removed the function from the legal department. Instead, the shoe brand deputized everyone in the company. “We’re trying to bring awareness of brand protection from ideation to delivering product to our clients and [the customers’ experience],” Toro said. “One of the biggest issues is educating our people to be aware that every single decision affects the value of the brand whether its positively or negatively.”

Once companies start viewing brand protection differently, Toro believes they’ll recognize the scope of the conversation. “You need to start thinking more about other infringements than IP infringement,” she said. “There’s other stuff that’s happening on the internet.”

And among the “stuff” Red Wing has been fighting are violations of minimum advertised pricing policies as well as counterfeiting. In the case of the latter, Toro said the industry has it all wrong.

“A consumer that buys a counterfeit is making a conscious decision. If we know the downside reality, why are we not changing our reality of how we’re addressing counterfeiting?” she said, adding that brands should be working together, though she doesn’t see that happening.

Toro’s approach to combating the problem would move apparel and footwear brands into a new arena, one that would be a sort of spin on the “Just say no” initiative used to combat drug use. While consumers today are often credited with being savvy, this is one area in which she said the industry is underestimating them. With the right amount of marketing around the message that counterfeits are bad, Toro believes consumers would eventually give up their elicit shopping fix, killing the demand for these harmful goods. “I bet if you start educating our young people about the risks and threats of counterfeiting, they might make better decisions when they grow up,” she said.