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What is “Brandjacking”?

Brand hijacking or "brandjacking" is using another business's brand name for use in one’s own marketing. Is it legal? Is it underhanded? Read on for a deep dive as we dig up the latest info.
David Victor
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Brand hijacking or “brandjacking” is the practice of leveraging another business’s brand name for use in one’s own marketing.

Digital marketers should learn everything they can about brandjacking in order to:

  • Keep their brand safe
  • Know how to do it if their marketing department deems it necessary

This guide is the ultimate explainer of the phenomenon of online brand hijacking. We’ll talk about what it means, how a brand can do it, how a company may be able to prevent it from happening to them, and what to do after experiencing a brand hijack. 

Let’s dive right in!

What is Brandjacking?

Brandjacking can be a difficult concept to fully comprehend because “brand” can encompass many different things, especially in the often-nebulous world of the internet. Nevertheless, several clear situations constitute brandjacking.

Examples of Brandjacking

Here are some of the most common examples of brandjacking:

Brand name mentions

Writing a blog post, article, or any type of content that contains a competitor’s brand name is perhaps the most common and simplest form of brandjacking. If a company’s content is authoritative and well-optimized, there’s a possibility that it may rank ahead of a competing brand’s website when someone searches for the brand name.

One example is creating a list-type article, also known as a “listicle”, about a particular topic within a specific niche or geographical region. Let’s say a company’s main product is a software-as-a-service (SaaS) applicant tracking system (ATS) and they’re creating a post about the best SaaS ATS on the market today. By mentioning other ATS software brand names in their listicle, a company increases the chances that their own website will appear on search results if someone looks up the competing brands online.

Social media piggybacking

Social media piggybacking, or piggyback marketing, is drafting on another brand’s viral posts and/or hashtags on social media platforms or social networks in order to redirect the traffic to their own channels. It can also mean posting about, interacting with, and sending messages to that brand’s intended audience.

A real-world example of social media piggybacking happened in 2017 when a teenage boy messaged the official Wendy’s Twitter account to ask for a year’s worth of chicken nuggets. Wendy’s playfully replied that they would – if he could give them 18 million retweets.

The incident started hundreds of piggyback marketing attempts from all over the internet. The most prominent brand was United Airlines, which promised the boy a free roundtrip flight to any Wendy’s around the world if he achieved his goal.

Cybersquatting

Cybersquatting is using a domain name or social media handle that includes the competitor’s brand name or something close to the brand in order to appear on their audience’s search engine results.

This also includes registering as a trademark a brand that is not one’s own or creating social media pages with names similar to competitor brands. For example, if a competitor’s name is “Pretty Pixels,” a company may think of registering “@prettypixels1.” They also register common misspellings like “@prettypixles” or “@prettypixel.”

A company may buy multiple domain names that resemble their own well-known brand to prevent cybersquatting, but this usually just ends up benefiting those who sell domain name registrations. Clever cybersquatters know how to use the power of Google to maximum advantage.

Google Ads brandjacking: bidding on search keywords

Google Ads brandjacking refers to bidding on Google Ads keywords that include another brand’s name. 

In a nutshell, brandjacking redirects “Brand A”‘s traffic to the properties that “Brand B” controls so that Brand B can benefit from it.

Brand hijacking can have side effects for both the brand owner as well as the hijacker. That said, doing it effectively means that a brandjacker can reap benefits when it comes to their marketing efforts.

Businesses can minimize potential damages when another company attempts to use its own brand to market against them. The more businesses know about the process of brandjacking, the better they can protect themselves against the practice.

What is Brandjacking on Google Ads?

Brandjacking can take many different forms, and each one can be effective in its own right.

However, one of the most effective ways to gain traffic from another brand’s name is through bidding on those brand name keywords on Google Ads.

Google Ads works on a bidding system. Traditionally, a Google Ads advertiser will bid for keywords that directly relate to their business proposition. For example, a medical device engineering business may bid on the term “medical device engineering companies.”

The presumption is that people searching for those words on Google have high buyer intent.

There’s another way that companies can ensure that potential searchers go to their website: they can bid on their own brand name.

Brand names are “high buyer intent” searches, which means that individuals who search a brand name are typically doing so because they already know it exists, and they want something they know that company provides, be it products or services.

Therefore, bidding for a competitor’s brand on Google potentially redirects a percentage of these high-intent searches away from them. Then, when their audience searches for their brand name, the brandjacking company’s website may show up high in the search results, resulting in their prospective customers potentially becoming theirs.

Is Brandjacking Legal?

It may seem surprising, but brand hijacking isn’t illegal.

In fact, in 2011, there was a United States Court Ruling about this exact matter.

The case started when one firm placed a bid on the other firm’s brand name on Google Ads. Whenever someone searched for something like “XYZ firm” on Google, the “ABC firm” website and map location would show up on the ads instead.

The first party took action, calling it an unfair violation of privacy. That said, the second party, also the brand name bidder, won using a freedom of speech defense.

The defense’s expert witness testified that such hijacking tactics have these benefits:

  • Gives consumers–or in this case, clients–greater freedom to choose which company they want
  • Encourages competition by allowing smaller firms with more skilled advertising to compete against large companies
  • Is appropriately aggressive for business competition

This means that brandjacking has been ruled legal and Google can “sell” searches for a brand name to whoever bids the highest. 

Pros and Cons of Bidding on a Competitor’s Brand in Google Ads

Since brandjacking has been ruled legal and can be good for business in certain circumstances, companies might want to jump right into the practice.

But just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s automatically the best course of action. Sometimes, it may seem beneficial to bid on another brand’s keywords, but it depends on the situation and the potential advantages.

Benefits

There are some obvious advantages to a company from a successful brandjacking initiative on Google Ads.

Captures a similar target market

A company and its competitors are already most likely selling the same things, with small–yet important–differences.

When potential customers see a company on the top page of their Google search results, they become more likely to include it in their choices of where to buy something.

If a company has a better offer than the competition, then the free-market principle takes hold, and the audience will likely gravitate to them more.

This way, a company can increase their slice of the market while reducing their competitors’ at the same time. 

Improves brand awareness

When selling something on the internet, companies rarely pass up the chance to enhance their brand image or at least improve brand awareness.

Keyword searches can help because they expose a brand to an audience that’s already looking for similar products or services.

It doesn’t matter if the other brand is more popular – simply getting a foot in the door is the first step to establishing a brand in the eyes of a target market.

To be seen as a potentially viable alternative to a given brand leverages the psychological principle of perceived value by association. 

Capitalizes on the lower demand

In many ways, it’s quite practical to bid on a competitor brand’s keywords on Google Ads because it’s common for brands not to bid on their own name.

This means a Google Ad may show up before a competitor’s well-optimized Google organic search result, which makes brandjacking a tactic with a high potential return-on-investment compared to other marketing efforts.

Fuels healthy competition

The spirit of healthy competition agrees with the US Court’s conclusion: that freedom of speech encourages healthy competition in an open market.

When competitors realize that someone else is deliberately diverting their traffic away, this fuels them to improve their digital marketing and, of course, their own Google Ads initiatives.

Conversely, before starting a brandjacking campaign, companies often take precautions to protect their own brand from the practice as much as possible.

In short, this practice can result in both parties improving a specific aspect of their business.

Disadvantages

Brandjacking might sound somewhat appealing, but it’s not always advantageous. A company that does brandjacking may face negative consequences as well, so it’s good practice to weigh the advantages and disadvantages before engaging in it.

Bidding wars cost money

Bidding on competitor keywords on Google Ads requires sufficient capital for additional expenses.

Companies also bid on their own keywords to prevent an easy takeover from their competitors, adding to the expense of engaging in brandjacking. Companies not bidding on their own brand name leaves competitors free to bid on it for cheap, which would negate the advantages of brandjacking in the first place.

In that case, the two companies might as well just switch keywords!

Additionally, if a competitor is also implementing expensive advertising campaigns, a bidding war may ensue. This will increase the price per keyword due to the sudden demand from both competitors.

It also means having to allocate a significantly bigger budget than normal–it’s like managing two brands instead of one.

Potential traffic may be limited

While hijacking a brand on Google Ads may seem like it has plenty of advantages, the truth is that customer conversion is far from guaranteed.

Brandjacking might work to divert traffic away from a competitor – but only for specific types of searchers. When loyal customers of that brand search for them, it’s likely because they intend to buy from that store and that store alone.

This means that a brandjacking campaign will usually only divert the traffic of undecided or merely curious individuals who are not loyal to a competitor’s brand – and who may not even be thinking of buying something right now.

Therefore, companies do their due diligence to decide whether or not Google Ad brandjacking will bear fruit.

Fosters bad business relationships

Lastly, brandjacking can reduce the chance of having a healthy business relationship with the competitor’s name that was hijacked.

Publicly bidding on a competitor’s brand keywords is an aggressive move. They may retaliate, and if their efforts are serious enough, the company that made the first move may suffer lost revenue if they’re in a weaker position.

They may also reduce their chances for positive networking, especially if the industry is a tight-knit niche.

How to Bid on Competitor’s Brand in Google Ads the Right Way

Companies considering hijacking competitor brands need to understand how to maximize the benefits while reducing the downsides of such a campaign.

Here are steps that a company can follow to profitably hijack a competitor’s brand.

1. Secure own assets

The first thing a company has to do to improve its brand management is to secure its own brand’s identity on Google Ads.

This means investing in some market research to determine which of their ads and keywords convert the most.

They might also want to consult a search engine optimization (SEO) expert to learn the specifics of preventing potential competitors from hijacking their brand on Google Ads.

2. Know when to bid on competitor brands

Brand hijacking might be generally profitable – but this doesn’t mean that a company needs to do it every single time.

Therefore, knowing when to bid on a competitor is just as important for companies who are considering engaging in brandjacking.

One way companies do this is by looking at their business goals and budget. If everything looks good, do they still have a reason to take over another brand’s keywords?

Moreover, if a company doesn’t have the budget, they may think twice.

Brand hijacking can get expensive fast, and if a company doesn’t have the capital for it, they could just as quickly end up on the losing side.

The best time for brandjacking could be when a company is falling short of its business goals but still has some budget to spare.

3. Choose the right competitor brand to hijack

One of the most critical mistakes digital advertisers make is not identifying the correct competitors.

For example, a local restaurant doesn’t have to compete with McDonald’s or other big-name fast food joints. While it’s roughly in the same industry, they’re in an entirely different league. They’re not the ones taking the smaller business’s customers away.

Instead, it would be best if they looked at other small local restaurants.

At the same time, companies generally only try to take traffic away from businesses that they feel they have an actual competitive advantage over, whether in terms of prices, quality, or customer service. 

After all, nobody wants to be all bark and no bite.

4. Aggressively bid on mobile

Mobile is playing an increasingly significant role in traffic and conversion strategies, so companies often bid aggressively in that channel.

This is especially true for local businesses.

Intent can be quite different on mobile. When people search for something on their phone, the chances of them buying something are much higher than on desktop.

Therefore, a company interested in brandjacking may allocate some resources to researching and taking over mobile phone traffic.

5. Take a multi-channel approach

Hijacking a competitor brand’s keywords on Google Ads is an effective strategy. But if a company wants to take a holistic approach, it can also hijack a brand on the social media frontier.

Social media brandjacking is an entirely different type of campaign. If a company wants to maximize its brandjacking initiatives, they’re likely going to want to dominate the social media scene as well.

Protecting From Brand Hijacking

Even if a company doesn’t want to conduct brand hijacking itself, it’s still beneficial to know everything about it to prevent others from engaging in the practice against them.

But that’s not all – there are also concrete steps that companies can take to protect themselves from brand hijacking.

1. Send out a “cease and desist” order

The first thing a company can do is initiate a dialogue using a cease and desist order, which is a letter written by an attorney warning the recipient that legal action may be taken if they don’t stop engaging in a particular activity.

Brand hijacking on Google Ads is legal, so, technically, they’re not doing anything wrong. It’s also true that a cease and desist order may not do anything to dissuade their efforts.

Nevertheless, this first course of action humanizes a company’s struggle and sends a message that they’re not going to tolerate brandjacking if it goes on for long. Sending out a cease and desist order has the dual effect of taking the high road with competitors while simultaneously asserting authority.

It’s recommended to give other parties a reasonable period–no more than a week, ideally less–to stop the attack.

2. File a trademark complaint

If a company’s brand name is trademarked, it’s possible to file a complaint with Google Ads for trademark abuse.

If the complaining company compiles the necessary documentation and dialogue with Google Ads – Google is likely to take action. Keep in mind that this is unlikely to curb all infringement activity outright, but it can reduce it significantly.

3. Aggressively bid on one’s own brand name on Google Ads

A company can bid on their own brand name as soon as they’ve conducted the first step: since they’re not bidding on the other party’s keywords, the latter shouldn’t see it as an act of aggression.

Bidding on one’s own keywords is an excellent way to assert authority while still trying to de-escalate the situation.

4. Attempt a takeover of the aggressor’s brand keywords

If they still have not ceased their brandjacking attempts, the next action companies often take is to reciprocate.

This is done by aggressively bidding on the other party’s keywords. The competitor may not have enough capital to outbid the attempt, especially if they’re not expecting a bid on their own brand.

That said, speed is key when attempting a takeover. Ideally, a company that’s being brand jacked is ready for a brand bidding campaign shortly after sending out a cease and desist letter, to give the adversary less time to come up with the needed funds.

Engaging in a bidding war with a competitor is a matter of survival: if the brandjacked company doesn’t do anything in response to a hijack, its online presence can suffer. The least they can do is to make the takeover attempt costly by increasing the prices of their own keywords and their adversary.

5. Launch new marketing campaigns to highlight advantages

If a competitor is bidding against a particular company, chances are they believe that they have an edge on certain aspects of the latter’s business. To counter this, the brandjacked company can get ahead of the narrative by aggressively marketing its edge against its competitors.

The company’s brand managers can conduct marketing initiatives on social media, away from the Google Ads battle.

This multiplies the front lines of their virtual battle, and if the other party is responding in kind, they may already be scrambling and burning up their resources just to keep up.

Bidding on a Competitor’s Brands on Google Ads In 2022

There has been a fundamental shift in the way companies are doing business these days. Brandjacking in 2022 can be an effective marketing strategy, especially as more small businesses adapt to a world that’s constantly connected to the internet. 

Whether conducting a profitable campaign or preventing harassment from a competitor, knowledge of brandjacking practices can help keep businesses competitive in the dog-eat-dog world of online marketing.

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