For this episode of Intentwise Expert Connect, I spoke with Michelle Bonadonna, sales director at VantageBP, at Prosper Show 2022 in Las Vegas about brand protection on marketplaces. Watch or read our conversation below.
Jason Chan: Tell me about yourself—how you got started with Amazon, what do you currently do?
Michelle Bonadonna: I am the sales director with VantageBP. We’re an online brand protection company, so we focus on getting rid of unauthorized resellers, counterfeit listings, as well as IP [intellectual property] infringements. We actually focus on requesting invoices from sellers in order to remove them from the marketplace, because there is this thing called the first-sale doctrine that protects them from selling on the marketplace and most sellers don’t want to give up this information.
So we’ve kind of built our process around that, and it is very successful on getting people off. In addition to brand protection, we also offer MAP [minimum advertised price] monitoring and enforcement services as well. But we’ve been running the brand protection piece for about five or six years, and added the MAP piece about the last 12 months.
JC: Let’s do a big brand and small brand comparison. Say I’m big brand—I’m not going to name anything—and I have third-party distributors selling. How would I know who to kick off or how to handle those situations? Do you step in and then monitor all the sellers and verify them?
MB: So we will run a scan, get everyone who’s on your listings first. Our system naturally automates sending out notices to those sellers with the highest number of listings.
JC: Is this on Amazon that you are sending the message?
MB: Yes, we send it through the messaging system within Amazon, so we will automate naturally those sellers with the highest number of listings. However, if you have specific ASINs [Amazon Standard Identification Numbers] that are of concern, if there are specific sellers that are a concern, if you want us to focus in on Buy Box winners, all of those are options as ways that we can determine how we run our enforcement. We’ll start there, work through getting invoices. That way you guys can kind of see if there is an issue with your supply chain, if there’s things that need to be adjusted. Many of the sellers just remove themselves by getting a notice from us. Actually that is the highest majority, and then there’s usually about 10-15% that’s sent through invoices.
JC: What’s the difference between me as a seller doing it? If I email another seller, “Hey, you are infringing on my products,” versus how you guys handle it?
MB: Some of it is that although we’re not a law firm, people do look to us to almost kind of be a legal entity in the way that we run the enforcement. We have strategic partnerships with the marketplaces as well. So a lot of times things that we will submit to them for an enforcement will actually be a higher priority for them than when a brand submits an enforcement, even when a brand has a Brand Registry. And the reseller community is shockingly small, they all kind of talk to each other. So once we start working with a brand, a lot of times those sellers communicate with each other and they’re like, “Oh, well, this brand is being protected. We should move off it and move to another brand.” So the resellers know us.
We see a lot of times when we run scans for brands, whether it’s a small mom-and-pop or a big Fortune 100 company, that there’s a lot of the same sellers that cross over. Our system has actually identified over 100,000 sellers at this point, even with just getting 10-15% of invoices back. That’s a huge number for the small percentage of invoices that come in.
JC: So you have a like a bad boy list that you keep track of.
JC: And you monitor across multiple marketplaces?
MB: Yes, 165 marketplaces globally. All Amazon’s, Walmart—U.S. and Canada, all eBay’s, Chinese marketplaces, Mercado Libre’s, Shopee’s, Lazada’s, social media—Facebook, Instagram.
JC: Do you have a direct API feed or something, or do you basically just scrape the information?
MB: We have crawlers that are created for every marketplace, and so we run those crawlers on the marketplaces.
JC: So pretty up to date. Talk to me about images, bullet points, titles. I’m a seller myself. I have beautiful bullet points, titles, and images, and say I see another manufacturer copying my content. How does that work? Is there any protection for me as a seller that I could do?
MB: Yes, so if there is a seller who is creating an ASIN and using your images, we can actually submit an enforcement against IP infringement of copyright image theft. And so we would just submit essentially the URL of where the images originally came from, and then submit that to the marketplace with the listing that’s infringing. Those actually come down really quick. Those are usually 24 hours to three days. So those are a little bit faster than the regular invoicing process. The invoice process can take three days to two weeks, just depending on if the seller removes it or if the marketplace does.
JC: Even the bullet points—does that work for bullet points? The specific copy that I write?
MB: We don’t necessarily get so much into the individual verbiage. There’s actually a piece that we’re building in our MAP enforcement down the road, where we’ll be doing some copy auditing.
But in the brand protection piece—when we’re running crawlers, if we’re focusing in on keywords specifically, it’s more brand specific if there are certain products for the brand that are either main items that they’re selling or more often counterfeited. So that’s ones that they specifically want us to be a little more focused in on. We can add keywords into the crawler, but it’s not necessarily listing descriptions that we focus on.
JC: What are some best practices that you might have for a new seller or even a big brand in terms of high level protecting yourself, before they need someone like you?
MB: Definitely starting with resale agreements, ensuring that the people that you are selling to know that your expectation is not to sell on a 3P marketplace or if they do have that ability, that maybe it’s just Amazon or maybe it’s just Walmart.
Some of our larger brands, when we start with them, we’ll actually send a notice out to their sellers—”Hey, we’re engaging the service. We just want you to know. If they send out a notice, make sure to send them an invoice.” Because, you don’t always know, unfortunately, if you’re working with a large retailer who has an agreement to sell in their store and on their own website, but not on a 3P marketplace, who they are if they’re selling under a different name. So getting that invoice actually a lot of times helps to determine that—who they are and if they’re violating any sort of agreement you have.
And then some brands want open distribution, and are okay with that. But they realize in the end it’s not the best way to run the process. So actually being a little bit more on top of your distribution and not leaving it quite so widespread is usually better than just having a wide-open distribution.
JC: How about Brand Registry? What kind of protection does that give you?
MB: For Brand Registry, for us, we can actually work with people who do or don’t have it. Brand Registry is really going to focus more in on trademark infringements, copyright-image theft type of infringement. That’s where you’d want to file that. If you have a very specific design patent on your item, you would want that there and then anything that was counterfeit that was violating that, you’re going to want to file that through the Brand Registry as well. However sometimes, unfortunately, Amazon is not always consistent in the way they do take down. So although it should help, it doesn’t always work. I know that there are also some things within Brand Registry that help lock your listing, so that way other people who are adding their seller name onto your listing can’t go in and change things. So being able to lock down that verbiage is also very important with Brand Registry.
JC: Thank you so much. Did I miss anything, before we wrap up?
MB: I guess the only other thing I would say is that our service, in general, after running it for the first two months, our average success rate is an 80-90% reduction of online infringements.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.