The worldwide market for counterfeit goods is estimated to be about 5%-7% of global trade. There is a significant demand from consumers for branded goods at cheap prices where the purchaser knows that the goods are fake and, consequently, there will always be a market for such products. However, the more concerning problem is where the purchaser is intent on acquiring a legitimate product but is fooled into accepting a fake. In such circumstances the purchaser may well know that to use a fake product is not cost effective, dangerous, or even life threatening and so does take some care to authenticate their acquisition. Examples of such products include pharmaceuticals, banknotes, critical safety products e.g. aircraft parts, electrical goods, children’s toys, sun creams, fireworks and some foodstuffs.
The battle lines between organisations seeking to prevent their goods being counterfeited (brand owners) and those seeking to produce fake goods (counterfeiters) are complex and constantly moving. For such reasons many different techniques are commonly used by brand owners, in combination, to deter counterfeiters and these are regularly changing as they are overcome and copied.
Brand protection techniques are commonly classified as being at the overt, covert or forensic level:
- Overt technologies are ones where the user authenticates the features of the product to determine its authenticity. Classically, in banknote technology, techniques like holograms, watermarks, special papers, fractal images, unique numbers, colour shift inks and tactile intaglio print are used. These are so well established that users unconsciously self authenticate the product every time they handle them. Overt techniques are very effective as the supply chain is authenticated on almost every handling operation by culturally accustomed users. Their difficulty is that overt techniques are very limited in number and can take generations to become culturally established and known.
- Covert techniques allow indicative authentication ‘in the field’ by trained users, commonly with a device of some sort. Examples include printed images invisible to the naked eye but visible under ultra violet ‘blacklight’, microscopic particles that fluoresce at a specific wavelength from a special hand held transmitter and coin reactive inks that change colour after being rubbed by a coin. Covert level techniques rarely offer anything to the user at the point of interaction with the product.
- Forensic level techniques typically involve the removal of the product to a laboratory for analysis to determine if the product or packaging contains a specified and unique microscopic taggant, commonly using a unique biological DNA profile, a complex random image or unique electromagnetic reflectance profile. Forensic level protection can be rigorous enough to be used in court as evidence of counterfeiting, but offers nothing to the user at the point of interaction with the product.
In recent times the widespread use of the internet has encouraged brand owners in some cases to encourage users to self authenticate valuable products, online, prior to purchase, comparing a unique number on every genuine item to a secure master database via smartphones. Practically, the user would manually enter the number or scan the number in using a smartphone barcode reader, typically using a two dimensional ‘2D QR’ barcode symbology. This use is growing but take-up is limited so far.
A separate issue is the reuse of authentic packaging such as pharmaceutical boxes, chemical containers and drinks bottles by counterfeiters to sell on fake product in real containers. To prevent this, brand owners use tamper evident, or tamper proof systems. These include special breakable plastic closures that visibly and/or audibly break on first access and sealing labels and tapes that visibly deform to show a breech has occurred. In this way users self authenticate that they are genuine first time users and the product is not fake.
The UK contributes significantly to the development of brand protection technologies in the battle against counterfeiting. Commercial drivers do however often limit what can be incorporated into commercial packaging as to incur any additional cost to protect a brand is a tacit admission that there is a significant counterfeit market for ones’ products. Historically many brand owners have been reluctant to invest in advanced packaging to protect their brands as it is often seen as a war that cannot be won.
Copyright The Mercian Labels Group 2011