With the growing grassroots popularity of Vibram FiveFingers footwear, the innovator of today’s hot barefoot running and fitness trend, counterfeiters have seen the chance for some quick money too -- particularly from consumers who are scanning the Internet for deals.
When the company found a couple of random counterfeiters late last year, Vibram President Tony Post told SNEWS this week it was “not a big deal;” the legal department shut them down quickly. But the deal got a lot bigger in the last couple of months.
Suddenly counterfeit websites -- even ones flagrantly using the Vibram images, graphics, logos, trademarks and contact information -- are popping up faster than “moles” in the classic Whac-A-Mole game. The situation has left the company scrambling to make unhappy customers happy, educate the consumer, and try to cut off counterfeiters at the source. Vibram, both in the United States and at its Italy headquarters, are waging all-out warfare to undermine the efforts from the start by working with GoogleAdWords and Google staff, hiring investigators in China, and starting viral promotion of the problem through its own Facebook page (www.facebook.com/vibramfivefingers), Post told SNEWS®.
“They’re like bunnies, the websites” Post said. “They multiply faster than you can catch them.
“You shut down one counterfeit website, and it pops up again down the street,” he added, explaining how some of these are literally set up in the backs of homes in China. “It’s like an endless battle.”
One counterfeiter was so savvy that its site even posted the warning about counterfeiters that Vibram had put out on its company sites, said marketing assistant Jonathan Gaffney, who is overseeing the GoogleAdWords campaign and other website investigation.
Vibram lookalikes -- until you look closely
While on the phone with Vibram executives, SNEWS did its own quick search on Google, typing in “Vibram Five Fing ers” (sic) and came up with a couple of sites that the company hadn’t even known about -- yet -- including www.discountvibram.com that had grainy Vibram Five Fingers imagery scrolling across the home page, the Vibram logo, identical Vibram font and headings, and a link to a so-called blog that had entries dated in May some of which was picked up from Vibram’s own site. If you read closely, however, one frequent problem on these sites, particularly this one, is the poor English. From DiscountVibram.com’s home page: “Persons always call them Vibram FiveFingers shoes for they have special space for your each toe, and they supply good protection for your toes under the feeling of real barefoot walking.” Really?
On many counterfeit sites, as on the DiscountVibram.com site that SNEWS stumbled into (see image below), contact information tends to be a real give-away of the unauthentic source since it is often non-existent, has Vibram’s own address, or is something vague. For example: “Our customer services are 7*24 hours online. Any question or concern, please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.” A gmail account for Vibram?
For Vibram, it’s less about the cost (it adds up to about $3,000 each time the company has to take legal action to shut down a fake website, Post said) than about the potential damage to the brand and to the FiveFingers reputation. In addition, the company is afraid somebody will have a bad experience with a shoe that falls apart and will then tell dozens of friends who will tell dozens more.
“That’s more concerning than lost sales,” Post said about the bad word being spread. “If the consumer thought this was the FiveFingers product and it was a piece of crap, and they tell 20 people or more people and maybe blog about it too, it’s very harmful.”
Fighting fire with fire
Although Vibram built the FiveFingers reputation purely on grassroots methods (although the 2009 national best-seller “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall didn’t hurt), this subvert attack is demanding more attention from Vibram on both sides of the Atlantic, Post said.
Vibram is, therefore, taking a two-fold approach. First, it is educating consumers and dealers directly:
>> Gaffney is taking aim at paying for GoogleAdWords to help push out the counterfeiters who are doing that. He told SNEWS that one site, www.onlinebuyshoes.info was selling counterfeit FiveFingers until the first week of June. Google by working with Gaffney shut down its AdWords campaign. So now the site is selling counterfeit DVDs for the trendy fitness workout P90X -- or at least it was as of June 16. “Amazing how fast they changed track,” said Gaffney.
>> The problem is being promoted strongly on the Facebook page to help devout users (FiveFingers has about 55,000 fans) also fight the battle on a grassroots level by making them knowledgeable and a kind of missionary (click here to see the Facebook information).
>> Company headquarters in Italy has its own webpage with a warning http://www.vibramfivefingers.it/, which the U.S. site also has when you click on the warning button in the upper right corner.
>> Vibram is placing trade advertisements to warn dealers of the problem and making sure legitimate dealers know the company is doing battle with it and won’t tolerate it.
>> The company has also sent a letter to dealers in late May making sure they were all aware of the problem and asking them to be sure to contact the company if it became aware of any websites or had consumers come into the store with fake merchandise:
“…As often happens in our industry when a particular “look” or brand becomes a hot property, we are also seeing an increase in deliberate attempts to counterfeit our trademarks and copy the proprietary designs of our Vibram FiveFingers® footwear. Please know that Vibram S.p.A. and Vibram USA view violations of our intellectual property rights with the utmost concern, and we are taking aggressive enforcement action against anyone who is manufacturing, distributing, marketing, or selling such knockoffs. These actions sometimes take awhile to get into place, but we are working hard to take the knock-offs from the market, and protect the profitability of our brand in your store…”.
Second, legally, the battle is also heating up:
>> The company has hired an investigator in China to investigate where the knock-off footwear is coming from. When asked if the shoes could actually be coming from their own factory, Post said Vibram has its own people on the floor and he doubted it, but then hesitated, knowing that anything can happen. Mostly, he said, the violators are not huge factories but mom-and-pop shops or sweat shops using kids in the backs of homes. “Sometimes in China,” he said, “it’s not so easy ” to find such places and shut them down permanently.
>> Although the company will continue to work legally to shut down websites using any variation of its company or shoe brand names, including Vibram or FiveFingers (www.vibramfoot2.com, www.4vibram.com, www.vibramfivefingers.me, www.vibramfivefingers-shop.com, www.buyfivefingers.com, www.shoesfivefingers.com, etc.), that costs a few thousand a pop. In fact, Gaffney said, the International Authentication Association estimated recently that USD $600 billion is lost each year on sales of consumer product worldwide. Even when a perpetrator is shut down, it doesn’t keep them from coming back with a new URL. So far, Vibram has shut down more than 130 websites, but Post estimates that not more than about 10 or so companies are behind them.
In addition to keep counterfeiters from simply cutting and pasting the Vibram imagery and logos from its own website, all have been locked down for now.
“The Internet gave the highway to do this,” Post said. “In the old days, we all kind of knew what was going on. We’d go to some street corner and there’d be the counterfeiter with Gucci bags or whatever spread out on a blanket. As a consumer, you basically knew they were knockoffs, but if you want one, you’d buy one. But at least you knew what you were getting.”
Vibram expects to continue to wage its war -- as Ugg and others have in the past. Perhaps as the hotness of the trend subsides, so will the counterfeiters move on to another product. But, as Post noted, “A lot of people will get burned along the way.”
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