How Brands Can Better Connect With Gen Z & Change Attitudes to Counterfeiting

With Gen Z ambivalent on the cost of counterfeiting to legitimate brands – and often actively seeking out fakes – how can brands educate consumers about their societal harms? Read insights from fashion brand Tommy Hilfiger and a leading social media consultant on how brands can raise awareness of the dangers of counterfeits and turn this into a positive message for change. Plus, hear their thoughts on how brands can keep pace with the evolution of the online space and the adoption of new platforms.

About the Contributors
Alastair Gray is the Head of Digital IP Enforcement for Tommy Hilfiger and leads up the global strategic operations around brand protection, encompassing both online and offline actions.

Max Klymenko runs a digital communications company called Klym&Co and hails from a background in brand protection strategy, enforcement, and reporting.

Typically defined as people born between 1997 and 2012, Gen Z are seen by many brands as the number one audience to connect with online.

The importance of Gen Z to brands

Gen Z are incredibly important for the future of any brand. They are known as the generation that primarily engages with the world online – consuming and creating content, interacting with friends and communities, and connecting directly with brands. Critically, they are the most likely demographic to share their experiences – both positive and negative – of a brand and its products.

Max believes that brands now need to be ‘digital native’, meaning that they should have a constant presence within the online spaces that Gen Z have adopted. Tommy Hilfiger is one such brand that has made the jump. Alastair shares that the brand has evolved its purpose and mission over the last few years, placing emphasis on promoting sustainability, inclusivity, diversity – key issues that resonate with Gen Z.

How Gen Z are shaping the online landscape

Gen Z appreciate honesty above all else, says Max, “They are allergic to hypocrisy. If I were to do something that isn’t moral, Gen Z would be the first part of my audience to call me out on it. And for brands, it’s the same.”

For all brands and marketers, the purpose driven element is critical. Gen Z are holding brands more accountable and are interested in how they impact both society and the planet.

The use of influencers

Max believes that Gen Z tend to trust, admire, and give greater weight to personalities rather than brands and companies. According to Max, this feeds into the process of researching products; gone are the days of consumers relying on official company websites and advertising to make purchasing decisions. “When it comes to fashion advice, Gen Z would rather listen to a personality than a brand – think Molly-Mae, instead of Vogue,” says Max.

A similar shift has been observed in news and journalism, with Gen Z turning to TikTok, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter to keep informed on current events.

For the last 30 years, Tommy Hilfiger has pioneered the use influencers within marketing. Alastair says, “we’ve been very keen to connect our customers with musicians and artists. Over the last 12 months, we’ve worked with Richard Quinn and metaverse platform ROBLOX as a way of connecting with Gen Z. Music is one of those great experiences that everyone gets involved in.”

Adopting new social media and metaverse platforms

There are multiple new avenues within gaming and the metaverse that brands can exploit to connect with Gen Z and remain front of mind. Take Tommy Hilfiger’s ‘Tommy Play’ experience on ROBLOX, as one example. Boasting over 35 million visits, the experience allows fans to challenge their friends to bike races, play Freeze Tag, and unlock virtual Tommy Hilfiger accessories for their avatars.

On the social media side, the platforms where brands should maintain a presence and deliver advertisements “partially depends on the geography”, says Max. For example, “in France, Facebook is still popular with Gen Z. Whereas in other regions, TikTok reigns supreme”. Brands must also factor the type of content that is most favored by Gen Z, “they are growing up with the feed that gives you what you want rather than what you think you want. They are more into short form video than long form – TikTok and YouTube are the go-to platforms for entertainment and creator culture.” Alastair adds that for fashion brands like Tommy Hilfiger, “Instagram is still huge.”

Implications for brand protection strategy

With Gen Z continuing to move towards user-generated content (UGC) platforms such as TikTok, brands need to review the channels that they prioritize and how they can effectively detect and remove infringements.

Alastair states, “If you think back to 12 months ago, was TikTok really on our radar in terms of going in and looking for infringement? No. But now it is. The challenge is that you can’t just look at a listing, analyze it in a few seconds, and then enforce – you’ve really got to look at the video and understand the context of what’s being what’s being sold. The other challenge is that TikTok and similar platforms aren’t necessarily sales channels. They’re often influencing channels in terms of pointing consumers to where they can buy products or sharing reviews of counterfeits. You’ve got to go a lot deeper to find the product itself and where it is being sold.”

Seller verification on marketplaces and social commerce platforms
“We need better tools from the platforms to identify and take down infringing content down,” says Alastair. “We need platforms to help identify those illegitimate sellers and their supply chains.”

While some platforms have enhanced their verification processes, their effectiveness is mixed. It comes down to the types of checks performed; if sellers only require a credit card to complete verification and start listing products, then there isn’t a strong barrier of entry to bad actors. Other platforms go much further by implementing supply chain checks, where they look at invoices and the paper trail of where products originate from. They will make a reasonable effort to verify that sellers are authorized to sell a product.

Increasingly, Gen Z uses social media to purchase branded goods. TikTok is one such platform that has hedged its bets on social commerce functionality, which it has rolled out across several key markets such as China, the US, and the UK.

Social commerce platforms are muddying the waters in terms of which parties fulfil orders, according to Max. Many members of Gen Z are under the impression that when you purchase something from the Tik Tok store, it is Tik Tok distributing these products. In reality, “consumers are actually purchasing directly from influencers through their own TikTok stores – neither Tik Tok nor the brand itself are involved”, states Max. “When the package arrives, there is also a letter there from TikTok, further confusing the customer.” Max maintains this isn’t like purchasing from Amazon, where “it’s clear to the buyer whether a product is fulfilled by Amazon or by a third-party seller”.

Rising threat posed by counterfeits and other brand abuse
Counterfeits remain a threat. But there are other threats that are becoming more prevalent on social media and websites, such as scams, impersonation, and false association. Alastair notes that influencer scams in particular are fast becoming a concern for brands. “This is where cybersecurity, consumer trust, and customer service all intersect,” says Alastair. “You have members of Gen Z thinking that they are signing an influencer contract but instead end up handing over money and personal details to scammers.”

Counterfeits aren’t viewed negatively by Gen Z
An uncomfortable truth is that many members of Gen Z will go out and hunt down counterfeits. They’ll share where to get the best counterfeits online, create reviews, and encourage others to purchase them.

Max says, “If a member of Gen Z purchases what they deem to be the same product that they would have got from Tommy Hilfiger, but it’s ten times cheaper, they think they’ve got a bargain and that’s it. It’s up to brands to educate their audience on why purchasing counterfeits is bad and make it a joint fight for making a better society. Tell them how to report fakes if they see them online.”

Educating Gen Z about the societal harms of counterfeits

Keeping channels clear and trying to minimize that risk of consumer confusion is critical to maintaining the trust relationship. However, educating Gen Z about societal harms is an important component to a brand protection strategy.

From a brand owner’s respective, counterfeits are damaging to revenue and reputation – but are Gen Z concerned with these issues? Alastair and Max don’t think so. Instead, consumers care more about the broader societal harms with counterfeiting – this is where brands can better educate consumers on how their purchases fuel a criminal industry.

Of course, there is difference in opinion across industries and individual brands on whether to publicly acknowledge counterfeit issues. Alastair and Max both strongly believe – as we do at Corsearch – that publicizing the issue is a progressive policy. By doing so, brands gain the opportunity to educate consumers and encourage them to report fakes. By setting out how they are protecting consumers from harm, brands can also deliver a great source of PR and win over internal stakeholders.

Alastair states, “It’s about being authentic. We all know that there is a problem with counterfeiting. We have a page on our website where people can find general tips in terms of how to spot a counterfeit website and demonstrating that we do have a team that is going to going out and doing this enforcement work.”

There are three key societal harms that brands can bring attention to:

  1. Counterfeits contain harmful materials
    In 2022, the American Apparel Footwear Association released a study into the danger of counterfeit apparel[1]. The study showed that counterfeit apparel has high levels of harmful chemicals and heavy metals and undergoes no checks before reaching customers’ doorsteps. The physical danger element is a key message for brand owners; ask consumers whether they want to be purchasing products for themselves or others that could have harmful materials within them.
  2. IP infringement links to organized crime
    There’s well-documented links between serious crimes – such as human slavery, money laundering, and drug trafficking – and IP infringement. Alastair believes it is an important message to hammer home as Gen Z, by-and-large, are unaware of the criminal organizations they are helping to fund, “On a surface level if a consumer just sees a copycat handbag in a YouTube video, they are unlikely to associate it with criminality and instead focus on the price and quality.”
  3. Poor-quality fakes lead to environmental damage
    Sustainability and environmental concerns are of huge importance to Gen Z. Brands are taking great strides to use recycled materials and reduce their carbon footprint, counterfeiters are not.

The durability of the products themselves should also be highlighted. “If someone buys a fake Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt for $15, this is likely to fall apart and end up in landfill, – which clearly isn’t sustainable,” says Alastair. “Then there are the hazardous materials used within knockoffs, such as lead and arsenic, that can pollute the environment.”

Educating Gen Z through storytelling

Nothing beats a good story. Max maintains that storytelling is an extremely powerful tool for brands seeking to distance their products from counterfeits. This leans into the idea that Gen Z are very purpose driven and want their experiences to be organic, authentic, and ethical.

A direct comparison of the quality can be enough to convince potential customers says Max, “I know of one brand that produces high-quality headphones that shared a review comparing a knockoff to the real thing. The founder purchased a fake version of the brand’s product for $7 – the authentic version retails at $150 – and gave an honest take on their quality. He claimed that, for its price, the knockoff was well-made and functional. However, he then detailed his experience of using the headphones for a week and listed a host of problems to highlight the clear difference in quality.”

Max explains an alternative approach that was taken by a company that produces cameras “They encountered knockoffs versions of their signature camera bags being sold on Amazon. The founder published a video that compared the knockoff to the authentic version. They were incredibly honest, saying the knockoffs were almost the same as the authentic versions – and were five times cheaper. But he told the story of the time and effort put into the design. First, he detailed how the authentic zipper was made, then explained the meaning behind the logo, and finally shared how his girlfriend chose the colors of the bag. This really connected with the brand’s audience.”

Stay ahead of curve with your brand protection strategy

We often talk in brand protection about the need to stay on top of evolving infringer behavior. Indeed, Corsearch continually updates its technology so customers can uncover new behaviors, keep up with platform changes, and prioritize what matters. But if brands are to successfully protect consumer trust, they also must stay on top of evolving consumer behavior and educate them on societal harms.

It’s essential to think about the platforms that Gen Z are using and how they are using them – and gaining visibility of this. Consider what’s important to your consumers and how you can protect the relationship they have with your brand.

Learn more about brand protection solutions for tackling counterfeits and broader brand abuse on social media and beyond.

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