More and more, Amazon is becoming a difficult marketplace for brands to ignore. With 50% or more of the US population having a Prime membership, ignoring Amazon can mean at best losing potential revenue, and at worst permanent damage being done to your brand.
We have spent the last almost 10 years working directly with brands in some measure to try to protect and navigate Amazon. What is often frustrating is that Amazon doesn’t always seem to have brands’ best interests at heart. In this article, we will explore several tactical tips you can use to protect your brand on Amazon in the following areas:
- Protecting your intellectual property (copyright, trademarks, and patents)
- Protecting your listing copy and brand presentation on Amazon
- Controlling unauthorized sellers
- Identifying and removing counterfeit sellers
Before we get into specific ways that you can start to protect your brand, I think we should visit the fundamental truths that shape the way brand control is managed on Amazon.
- Listings are community property – Once a product is listed on Amazon, anyone with a product that is an exact match to what is being described on the product detail page can list their offer alongside yours.
- You can’t stop your product from being listed on Amazon – While you can remove a listing that uses copyrighted images or copy without permission, Amazon will not remove a listing just because a brand doesn’t want their products on the platform.
- Anyone can create a listing – Anyone on the Seller Central platform can create a listing. They do not need to be an authorized seller or a representative of the brand.
- Amazon will not get involved with distribution agreements – You will not be able to remove a listing simply because a seller is working outside of your reseller agreement with them.
Okay, that’s the bad news. But it doesn’t mean that protecting your listings and your brand is impossible on Amazon. It just means that you need to identify the right channels both on and off Amazon to control the way your products and intellectual property are displayed on Amazon.
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Protecting your intellectual property (copyright, trademarks, and patents)
In our agency, whether we are working with a small company just launching their first product or a large brand with inventory in big box stores in every city in America, one of the first things we want to do is get that brand involved in the Brand Registry Program.
Brand Registry is the abracadabra of the Amazon world. It opens up entry into a host of special programs that can protect and promote your brand on Amazon. I detail many of the special programs available exclusively to brands enrolled in the Brand Registry program in the Search Engine Journal. However, here is a quick list:
- Copyright and trademark infringement reporting tool
- Transparency (an anti-counterfeiting program)
- A+ content (formerly enhanced brand content)
- Amazon Vine
- Virtual bundles
- Sponsored brands (formerly headline search)
- Store pages
- Amazon Live
- Brand dashboard
- Brand analytics
- Amazon attribution
The reason Brand Registry was created was to help Amazon navigate copyright and trademark infringement claims between brands and sellers. You do not need to have Brand Registry to file a copyright or trademark infringement claim on Amazon; they provide a tool that is publicly accessible.
However, on the Brand Registry platform, you are given access to a tool that allows you to search for images, copyrights, and trademarks to see where on the platform those marks are being used. This allows you to quickly identify listings infringing on your copyright. This tool also provides direct links through which you can report sellers infringing on your intellectual property.
Before reporting sellers, make sure they are violating Amazon’s guidelines for copyright and trademark infringement.
Filing false or unsubstantial violations can result in the removal of a brand agent’s ability to file additional infringement claims - all the way to legal action from the seller. Many lawsuits have sprung up over the last year for counter-DMCA claims and tortious interference from brands that tried to use the intellectual property dispute process to control unauthorized sellers.
Protecting your listing copy and brand presentation on Amazon
After securing the IP rights of brand owners on Amazon, we then look at the content of their listings. Optimizing your listings takes time and money. Once you have invested in creating content for Amazon, you want to make sure that it does not get overwritten or deleted.
We often talk to brands that are concerned about listing their products directly on Amazon. We strongly recommend that, at a minimum, brands enroll with Brand Registry and regularly monitor their listings and third-party sellers to make sure that the way their brand is being presented on Amazon is consistent with their brand style and culture.
Remember, anyone with a Seller Central account can create a listing. If someone buys your item at Goodwill or a garage sale, they can list it on Amazon. This might include poor-quality images or, if your product is regulated, like a supplement, create a potential opening for litigation by making health claims that are not approved by the FDA.
Creating the listings yourself or, at an absolute minimum, using a tool like Listing Alerts for monitoring your existing listing for potential changes is vital to protecting your brand on Amazon.
The app allows you to set up email or SMS notifications that will alert you about losing the buy box, positions for your keywords, or if the price of the product has been changed.
We have had companies hire staff to manually check their listings each week. This can become very costly very quickly. However, if you prefer manual checks to using a tool, we recommend that you monitor the following:
- Structured data (quantity, fabric, age range, etc.)
- Changes in variation structure
Brand Registry is supposed to protect your listings by preventing sellers from making changes to them. However, with Amazon, sometimes things that are not supposed to be able to happen, happen.
For this reason, we recommend that you keep an updated flat file (a CSV of your Amazon listing) in case your listings are tampered with. If your listings are already on the marketplace, we recommend downloading the Category Listing Report once your products are optimized.
The Category Listing Report is not available automatically; you will have to request it from Seller Central. What this report does is it allows you to download a flat file (CSV) of all the data on the listing, including the back-end, structured data. It also maintains any parent-child variations you have set up for your listings.
Sometimes, only your contributions will show up in your Category Listing Report. This means that if your listing was created by a third-party seller, you may have holes in your report.
Downloading this report and saving it allows you to store your content, just in case your listing is deleted or the content is overwritten. It also allows you to quickly restore your content on Amazon.
Controlling unauthorized sellers
If you have read about protecting your brand on Amazon, you might have heard of a few terms. I want to quickly define two of them and explain why some articles focus on them so much.
Hijacker – A seller who either changes a listing to fit their product or lists a similar, but counterfeit, product on an existing ASIN/product detail page.
Piggy-backer – A third-party seller not connected to your company or brand that lists an additional offer on your existing listing.
Many of the blogs and articles that discuss protecting your listings are written for individuals who buy generic or unbranded items from China (called “private label” items within the Amazon community) and sell them on Amazon.
For those sellers, since their product is often materially the same as many other products, they have an increased focus on keeping individual sellers off their listing. Since they create the product and often have no other distribution other than through Amazon, they know that no other sellers are selling the same product as them.
If you are a brand that has a distribution range outside of Amazon, even if just through your own website, you need to consider the possibility that other sellers could legitimately have your product and be reselling it. Outside of the private label community, these sellers are often called 3P or third-party sellers.
Amazon provides one other tool for brands that are consistently having issues with counterfeit sellers. With the Transparency program you purchase bar code that is unique for every individual product.
Products enrolled are unable to be sent into Amazon’s warehouses without this bar code. This eliminates counterfeit products from being sold on Amazon’s site.
Transparency has a fairly low adoption rate, in my experience, because of the costs involved. In order to participate, you have to purchase a barcode for every product you produce, regardless of where you sell the item. This means that even on the truck load of goods being sent to Walmart you have to pay for a transparency logo. Some brands also have concerns about giving Amazon too much visibility into their supply chain.
If you are having a serious counterfeit issue, the transparency program can put a permanent stop to counterfeit items on Amazon.
Identifying 3P Sellers
We had a client that recently found they suddenly had a flood of third-party sellers. Their items, priced around $150 each, were being resold by resellers for as little as $125. The items were not sold in stores; as a result, the brand was worried they might be counterfeit.
We conducted a test buy of the items and found that they were authentic. We sent the name and address of the sellers to the brand, and the brand found that those same people had purchased their product during a recent holiday BOGO (buy one, get one) sale they had advertised on their website.
By simply making sure that their promotions didn’t leave enough of a margin to be resold on Amazon, they were able to quickly solve their reseller problem.
Sellers Selling Above MAP Pricing
We had another brand that sold spices. They had a wide sales distribution range. However, we identified that these sellers were purchasing items at full price from retail outlets. As a result, the only offers available on Amazon were, on average, selling 150–200% above MSRP. To combat this, the company simply started to offer the products themselves at MSRP. We merged all the duplicate listings the sellers had created. This drove all the traffic to the listing the brand was selling on. Within two weeks, we resolved the problem.
When you have unauthorized sellers on your listing, you’ll want to consider whether it is possible that they purchased the product from a legitimate source. If not, we recommend immediately conducting a test buy. It is important that you do not accuse sellers of inauthentic goods until you have made a good faith effort to determine whether their goods are legitimate.
Identifying and removing counterfeit sellers
If you are concerned that the sellers on your product detail pages are selling counterfeit products, you will want to take the following steps:
- Take a screenshot of the seller’s store name and ID, noting that store names can be changed at any time, but sellers cannot change their seller ID number. As of September 1st 2020, the legal business address and name will be displayed on their storefront.
- Conduct a test buy – Purchase the product on Amazon from your account.
- When the item arrives, take photos – Include incorrect packaging and a side-by-side of the counterfeit product and the authentic product.
- Submit your evidence that the product is counterfeit to Amazon.
You might have to report the same seller multiple times across multiple listings. If you are partnering with an agency or 3P seller, they should be able to help you with this process.
If you have a product that is temperature-sensitive, such as food, you can report unsafe shipments without proper dry ice or hazmat items that were sent via air shipping.
If you determine that they do have legitimate items, Amazon will not help you remove those sellers. However, there are steps you can take to control unauthorized sellers.
- Have clear reseller policies – Make sure you have clear policies highlighted on your sales sheets, price sheets, and reseller agreements for selling online. While Amazon will not help you enforce these, you can use your attorney to enforce them with the wholesale buyers you are selling to.
- Be selective with wholesale buyers – Young brands can find it particularly tempting to accept any new wholesale orders. You want to keep an eye out to make sure you are vetting wholesale vendors to ensure that they are not going to violate your policies and sell your product on Amazon.
Here are a few things to look out for:
- Placement of very large orders – If they have a 600-square-foot shop and are ordering by the pallet, they are probably selling online.
- Heavily buying less popular SKUs – On Amazon, demand directly impacts pricing. If you see a buyer purchasing heavily on SKUs not generally carried in stores or accessories and not carrying your bestsellers, this can be a sign that they are selling online.
- No storefront – If the buyer is unable to provide a picture of their storefront with current merchandising, or if their address shows up as a UPS store or warehouse, this could also be a sign that they are selling online.
- Keep your listings clean – Sellers will often look to see if there are a lot of other sellers on a product before approaching your brand. You can often limit the number of inquiries you get from Amazon sellers by working to only have your own offer on your listings.
A Note About 3P Sellers
I am writing this article for you, the brand owner. However, as a disclaimer, I started out as a 3P seller myself. There are times when it is appropriate and beneficial to have a dedicated third-party seller manage and promote your products on Amazon. In fact, many times, experienced sellers will optimize your listing, run ads, and enroll your product in special programs.
The key to successfully having third-party sellers help you market your products on Amazon is to limit the number of sellers on a listing. We recommend no more than two to three sellers for most products. We also suggest that each seller provide you with a plan on how they will drive additional traffic to your listings.
Some of the brands we have coached on this process have been able to increase their cash flow with the upfront payment of inventory from their third-party sellers, thus reducing the cost and labor needed internally to manage Amazon. As a result, they were able to avoid complications such as sales tax until online sales could be focused on again.
Brands that we have connected with experienced sellers have also said that this allowed them to focus more on their supply chain and product development.
Protecting Your Brand
Protecting your brand on Amazon is different than most other retail channels; however, it is not impossible. Here is a review of some basic steps we recommend you take to help protect your brand:
- Enroll in the Brand Registry or IP Accelerator Program;
- Track your listings with the Listing Alerts software; and
- Monitor 3P sellers and conduct test buys for suspected counterfeit products.
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