We speak to the Montréal-based founder and CEO of SafeBrands about brand protection and managing domain names.
SafeBrands was founded in 1997. How have your challenges changed over the years, and how have you overcome them?
We grew from being a basic registrar. In 1997 there was no segmentation of the market; you’d just buy a .com and that was it. 15 years ago, we decided to focus on the corporate domain registrar market, which is completely different from GoDaddy or other mainstream registrars, where there is a [fixed] price for a site, no service, and a commodity product. For us, domain names are part of a global ecosystem: you find them everywhere. The needs of large corporations and law firms are very different from those of an individual or a small company, for whom a domain name is just a commodity product to get a website and email addresses. 70% of our clients are from IP departments, because they’re concerned about the usage of their brands on the internet. The domain name is the online arm of the trademark.
So the main challenge has been to continue to propose intelligent features very specifically targeted to the needs of those clients. That means being able to register domain names anywhere in the world in any alphabet and with any extension. That’s a big challenge: you don’t register a domain name in Kazakhstan as easily as a .com. In Bahrain, you need to have a notarized brand – you go to the consulate and get a stamp. Every country and extension has its own rules. The challenge for us is to be a one-stop shop for domain name registration – providing security across both IP and IT. There are probably around 10 companies in the world that can claim to be doing this.
The second challenge has been to come up with the technology to meet the needs of trademark managers. This has included monitoring products, to alert clients whenever there’s a new domain name that concerns their brand, registered anywhere in the world. It’s a mighty technical challenge: creating algorithms to monitor all the world’s domain names is pretty complicated.
The third challenge for us now is to deal with all the cybersecurity elements of domain names. There have been some attacks on DNS servers, and phishing. Everything to do with domain names is becoming important in the cybersecurity world. Aside from domain name registration and monitoring, we need to provide IP managers with products to secure their domain names.
What are the most notable recent trends and developments in the brand world?
One big evolution was brought about by the ICANN [Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers], created back in 1998. It introduced the possibility of creating new extensions such as .sport, .health, etc., in contrast with legacy extensions [.com, .org etc.] and country code extensions [.co.uk, .de etc.].
With this programme of new gTLDs [generic Top-Level Domains], corporations have been able to create their own extensions – .nokia, .canon etc. They have written the brand into the level of the .com extension. Probably in 2022-’23, there’ll be a new wave of these. We’ve working very extensively with big brands to create their brand-specific gTLDs. This will allow the corporations to fully integrate the management of their brand into the highest level of the internet globally. It’s a big evolution.
In the last five years, corporations have really had to internalise the importance of proper domain name management strategies. In the past, they were a bit defensive, employing low-risk strategies; more recently, they’ve been putting in place real domain-name strategies to defend their brand and their cybersecurity.
How are the needs of start-ups different from those of well-established multinationals?
When you create a company, you can say, “OK, I’m going to get my .com, and I’m going to sell my new products there.” That’s fine, and if you export to Canada, you’ll have to set up a .ca domain name. But in five years, do you want to be independent, or do you want to be bought out? When companies are purchased, there’s often due diligence about the quality of the brand. If you haven’t been thinking about protecting their brand in advance, it’ll be much less valuable – there could be cybersquatters, for instance.
Large corporations are well-established and have had long-term strategies. The big brands we serve have all been attacked; they’ve all been the victims of cybersquatting. Start-ups, meanwhile, haven’t experienced this sort of harm. For them, the first stage of development is usually commercial and technical; they don’t pay enough attention to the legal side. Their attention is almost entirely on their products. They don’t automatically have the money to invest in protecting the brand, be it offline via the trademark itself or online via the domain name
Let’s say I’m a new start-up looking to manage, deploy and protect my brand, and register my domain name securely. Can you walk me through the stages of how you would handle this project?
If it’s a start-up that’s thinking about the product in advance, but has not yet branded it, we would love to get involved at such an early stage. We could then work with the trademark organisation to do an audit on the trademark. We’d look at how the brand is already being used in domain names and social networks. The first step is to not only to verify the trademark, but to check if the domains are free. And that’s just the .com – it might already exist under other extensions in other countries. The audit would help resolve this.
We might conclude that it’d be worth thinking about another brand altogether – the trademark might be free, but the domain name might be taken in some key countries. The domain name must be taken care of as soon as possible – it’s easier for someone to register a domain name than a brand. You should think in this way even for a non-online service.
Who are your biggest competitors, how have they changed over the years, and how do you manage to differentiate your offering from theirs?
It’s the big global companies – CSC, MarkMonitor and companies like that. Of course, they are big, have plenty of marketing money, are active everywhere, and have purchased various companies over the years, which have made them prominent in many local markets.
We’re more like a boutique. We’re less than 40 people; our clients are mostly francophone, in Europe and Canada, but we’ve also developed good business in Asia, particularly Japan. But we operate a different kind of service. If you look at certain high-level global brands, such as Sofitel, you know that you’ll receive the same service in a Sofitel in Japan as in a Sofitel in London or New York. That’s the CSC model, and I’ve got nothing bad to say about this global service. But we are like a boutique hotel: you’ll always find the same staff. We know each of our clients well, personally; we have very longstanding relationships with them. Some of our clients have been with us for 15-20 years. Each client manager has a limited number of clients, and knows exactly what to do for them.
We’re not just a service provider: we really focus on client service. We have the strength of the IT we’ve been investing in for the last 20 years, which counts for a lot, but we also have these longstanding personal relationships and flexibility. If a client is not happy, they don’t have to call the head office to escalate it. They can just say, “I know the guy (or gal), we’ll just discuss it.”
We just conducted a ten-day client satisfaction survey among our key accounts. The result: 93-96% satisfaction. It was like a Soviet election!
SafeBrands has offices in EMEA, Asia and North America. What’s your strategy for Africa and South America?
We handle Central American and South American clients out of our Montréal office, and we’re probably the company with the highest number of local authorisations in Africa. If you visit safebrands.africa, you’ll see that we are officially accredited in more than 28 countries; in 14 more, we register directly with that country’s registry. We’re generally working for multinationals protecting their assets in Africa, rather than for African companies, but we do have some clients on the ground in Africa who come to us for domain name matters.
SafeBrands says on its website that it makes use of “judicious partnerships with recognized industry experts”. How does this relationship work?
We have two types of partnerships: as a provider and as a client. In some instances we have strong ties with some firms, where we can’t register the domain names without a local presence. In this respect we use trusted partners we’ve worked with for years through the INTA [International Trademark Association] network. I’m a member of the Internet Committee of the INTA; we’re very involved in the internet and ICANN community. In some countries where you need to have local presence to be registered, we use their services to register a domain name.
We sell a lot of monitoring services to law firms all over the world. In some instances we’re subcontracting with law firms for very specific legal actions, such as takedowns and domain name recovery. The authorisations we have in some instances allow us to engage in domain name recovery and cybersquatting stoppage very efficiently, so law firms often use our services for their clients.
Influential people, such as tennis player Andy Murray, are now often investing in brands rather than being sponsored by them. How has the nature of brands changed recently?
Brands have always been powerful, but now they are increasingly [entangled with] people. Take Prince Harry and his wife – they’re marketing their brand now. Individuals have become brands; they bring value. Of course, a personal brand is in the service of getting the most lucrative contracts with product brands. Roger Federer makes money from a Rolex sponsorship, which in turn comes from the fact that he’s been able to market his name as a brand. So it’s a circle.
And brands are increasingly investing in the community. The image of the brands is key, but now a brand’s capital is not just its image, but its values. Millennials buy into brands for different reasons – because they’re eco-responsible or otherwise ethical, for instance. In the past, a brand’s value derived largely from the success of the image it conveyed – having a Rolex on your wrist, for instance. Now it’s far more manifold. Is the car you’re driving built by an environmentally responsible company, for instance?