BRAND PROTECTION: The Converter's Role

Information-centric systems can mean more secure products in the marketplace. The converter is key to the process.

Charm and good looks aren't enough anymore. “Sure, you're beautiful, durable, and you make a great impact at the point of sale, but what can you do to prevent fraud?”

Brand owners are asking more of their packages these days, and as they do, converters are being asked about package security, authentication, and tracking. You want to respond to your customers' needs, and you see an opportunity to add value to products that otherwise can be commodity items, but you don't know how to proceed. “Should I become a security printer? Do I need to enter a spy-versus-spy world of invisible inks, encrypted signatures, and decoder rings?”

In this article we'll try to sort out these questions and provide some guidance for what converters can do to become involved in secure packaging. We'll also describe a new approach to product security, information-centric brand protection, that will help close the loop and form a complete solution.

Fraud Comes in Many Forms
Threats to products in the marketplace take on many different forms. While converters don't need to understand all possible forms of product fraud (perhaps no one can do that), it helps to know some of the terms.

Basically, every imaginable way someone can make money by duplicating trade dress, swapping out cargoes, or altering contents has been attempted. And while no one really believes the street corner Rolex® vendor is selling the real thing, these are not victimless crimes. When consumers take medicine that is fake or diluted, use a counterfeit lotion that gives them hives, or pay top dollar for a purse that falls apart, they get hurt, as do legitimate businesses.

The following are three common classes of fraudulent products:

  • Counterfeits: Low price, knock-off versions of products sold with fraudulent packaging that directly mimics the trademarks or trade dress of brand name merchandise.
  • Gray Market or Diverted Goods: Real products sent to markets where they were not intended. A lower-priced version produced for overseas might be re-imported and sold as top-priced domestic merchandise, or a large retailer might buy more than it can really sell to secure a low wholesale price, then resell the surplus to smaller retailers.
  • Refills: Real, emptied packages are refilled with low-cost, low-quality, counterfeit product. Ink jet cartridges are common targets of this type of fraud.

What End-Users Want
What can be done about these fraudulent practices? What do brand owners want in the way of secure packaging?

We can start out by listening to what they don't want. We have heard, loud and clear, that brand owners don't want to be trapped in a high-cost, proprietary technology. They don't want to pay more for a response to product fraud than that fraud is costing them. And they don't want to be sold technology without purpose; they want to be provided with solutions.

Converters can provide an important component of those solutions, but they can't fill in the whole picture. That is why it is essential for the converting industry to learn to partner with other players that can help bring together a complete package. These players include security feature providers, investigators, system integrators, and, yes, even lawyers.

To perform their role in providing secure packaging, converters need to apply one or more security features, or signatures, into the packages or products they convert. The converter then needs to confirm the feature has been properly applied and needs to document that confirmation. An ISO-type process is desirable for this. This documented proof the legitimate products all have security markers could be essential in any court battles against counterfeiters.

Security by Category
Security features include security inks, papers, specialty adhesives, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, micro-taggants, and holograms. Any characteristic that can create a unique, difficult-to-forge product “signature” can be used, but they generally fall into the following categories:

  • Fluorescent Inks: Light up when exposed to ultraviolet or infrared light.
  • Color-Changing Inks: Change color when exposed to certain stimuli. Thermochromic inks change when temperature is raised; photochromic inks change when illuminated by ultraviolet light; chemically sensitive inks change when wiped with an indicator pen or spray.
  • Magnetic Inks: Carry information much like a tape recorder. This information can form an electronic signature.
  • Security Papers: Incorporate features directly into the paper or boardstock. These include fluorescent fibers and other markers. The paper may have very low content of other fluorescent materials, which could mask the markers.
  • Security Adhesives: Normal packaging adhesive tagged with authentication markers, placing them where they are concealed from would-be counterfeiters.
  • Holograms: Somewhat difficult to copy micro-embossed, aluminized films.
  • Micro-taggants: May have many different components, such as layers of colored plastics, DNA, or distinctive chemical elements — anything that can be detected.
  • Radio Frequency Identification (RFID): Microchips linked by radio to an electronic reader. RFID has been touted by some as an end-all solution to product identification and security, but prices remain stubbornly high, and performance has not met claims.

To See or Not to See
Security features can be overt or covert. That is, they may be designed to be conspicuous to the consumer, such as a hologram on a credit card, or to be invisible to all but trained investigators.

Features also may be termed “forensic,” requiring detection by a specially equipped laboratory. These include materials such as DNA markers, isotopic markers based on non-radioactive atomic isotopes, and unusual elements that may be detected by X-ray fluorescence analyzers. Authentication features often are “layered,” combined with other features to form a multilevel indicator of product integrity.

In many cases, the application of authentication features to packaging may be similar to any other printing process, but greater controls must be in place to ensure the integrity of the process. Security inks must be kept under strict control to avoid being stolen, diluted, or used on nonapproved packages. Sometimes this requires the establishment of an entire secure converting facility with access codes, video monitoring, and background checks on personnel. These facilities can add significant costs compared to simple conversion on general-use presses on an open factory floor.

Once packages have been marked, their movement through the supply chain also must be controlled. A semi load of security tagged cartons would make a ripe target for counterfeiters. They would need only to add a similar but cheap generic product to the cartons to have an extremely valuable cargo.

Security features can provide a check of authenticity only if the checker knows what to look for. With traditional authentication schemes, none of these features is of any use unless the investigator has the information that determines what is real, and the investigator could be working for the counterfeiters! That is what has led to the development of “information-centric” schemes for brand protection.

Is it Real in Rio?
There is much more to the product security process than just slapping on an authentication feature. Brand owners generally can tell if their products are real if they have them in hand. Most fakes are fairly crude, because that's all they need to be — good enough to fool a customer into buying them. What brand owners need is a way to tell if the stuff in some market down in Rio with their brand name on it is real. And there are hundreds of manufacturers with tens of thousands of products that need to be validated.

Say you invent a clever scheme for applying invisible, magnetic, UV, magic ink that can't possibly be faked. The world will surely beat a path to your door. But what do they do with it? How can you instruct an army of investigators just where to look for the magic ink on each of 10,000 products? And if you do that, how many of those investigators will work for Acme Counterfeits Inc. and make their own magic ink?

More complete approaches to authentication are now in the works to answer this question. These are called “information-centric” systems, because they place the emphasis on the information rather than on the particular authentication features. The feature is really just a single bit of data. Is the product authentic — or not? When you use a computer you don't care how the bits and bytes inside it are stored, you just care that they are reliably saved, transmitted, and kept safe for when you need them next.

The key in applying this to brand protection is to collect the product signature with a “dumb reader” and pass it along the Internet to a secure computer server where it is compared with a product template. The investigator has no idea what has been collected or how to counterfeit the product.

Following are the steps in information-centric authentication (also see Figure 1):

  • Feature Application: An authentication feature is incorporated onto the package as part of the ink, adhesive, packaging material, or other addition.
  • Feature Confirmation: An in-line check is performed to ensure each package is receiving an authentication feature properly. This is particularly important if it may need to be legally proved that all authentic products — and only authentic products — have been marked.
  • Documentation: The confirmation of the feature is recorded in a safe place for future reference.

Harvesting the Data
That ends the converter's role but really just begins the brand protection process. Once products are shipped, data harvesting takes place, as shown in Figure 2:

  • Field Inspection: Features are collected from some fraction of products in the marketplace and supply chain. This is a first level of investigation that is intended only to locate problems, not necessarily to develop legal cases.
  • Comparison: Features, or “signatures” from products in the field, are compared to previously stored templates, all within a secure computer server.
  • Proof: The fact that no valid signatures appear on counterfeit merchandise, combined with the documented application of security features, provides proof of fraud.

Following this detection and documentation of fraud, subsequent legal or civil actions are taken to address the problem:

  • Fraud Investigation: Products that have been shown to be counterfeit by the previous efforts are seized and forensically tested in a fully documented way to build legal cases against counterfeiters and their markets. Investigators often are accompanied by police on these raids.
  • Legal Action: Can take the form of either civil action or prosecution, depending on the violations.

If this sounds like a big job, that's because it is. Counterfeiting runs into the tens of billions of dollars and is rising all the time. It's time to get to work combating it.

Mark Waterbury is president of Perception Development Co., which provides consulting services for brand security, electronic article surveillance, technology marketing, and engineering development. For more information contact 419/352-4201, or visit

Organizations in the area of product security include:

International Anticounterfeiting Federation —

Reconnaissance Intl. —

The Anti-Counterfeiting Group —

Imaging Supply Coalition —

The Copyright Advise and Anti-Piracy Hotline —

The views and opinions expressed in Technical Reports are those of the author(s), not those of the editors of PFFC. Please address comments to author(s).

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