We’ve all heard the expression, “fake it till you make it.” Sounds empowering, doesn’t it? In a review-based consumer market – currently dominated by Amazon – people’s genuine opinions can influence whether or not emerging brands survive. In fact, according to Pew Research, approximately 82% of Americans let online reviews affect their purchasing decisions. So if you’re an emerging brand trying to make a name for yourself, writing a few fake reviews here and there may seem harmless, right?
As tech critic David Pogue said, “If you’re a desperate, obscure company, those reviews are your only hope of generating sales. Highly-rated products appear first in Amazon’s search results, so getting your product listed at the top means big money. Gaming the system becomes very appealing.” They key word here is “desperate.” It’s not a good look on anyone, whether you’re trying to scale your brand, land a job or get a date.
Take skin care brand Sunday Riley, for example. The Texas-based brand recently settled with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) after the company was accused of posting fake reviews of their products on Sephora’s website for two years. As part of the settlement, Sunday Riley agreed not to write fake reviews, but did not admit any wrongdoing or receive any form of punishment. The FTC said, “Rather than relying on satisfied customers to generate real buzz about her products, (founder Sunday Riley) directed her employees to write glowing reviews and bury negative ones, while offering detailed instructions on how to avoid detection.”
The FTC shared snippets of multiple emails sent by the CEO, in which Riley urged her employees to always use a “virtual private network”, or VPN, before writing fake reviews so they aren’t traced back to the company. “If you see a negative review — DISLIKE it,” Riley said in one of her emails to employees. “After enough dislikes, it is removed. This directly translates to sales!!”
The FTC complained that the “settlement includes no redress, no disgorgement of ill-gotten gains, no notice to consumers, and no admission of wrongdoing. Sunday Riley and its CEO have clearly broken the law, and the Commission has ordered that they not break the law again.” So in other words, they got a mere slap on the wrist for cheating, which is lucky considering that not too long ago, New York regulators fined 19 companies a total of $350,000 in penalties for their misleading fake review practices.
As the NY Times reported, “The yearlong investigation encompassed companies that create fake reviews as well as the clients that buy them. Among those signing the agreements are a charter bus operator, a teeth-whitening service, a laser hair-removal chain and an adult entertainment club. Also signing are several reputation-enhancement firms that place fraudulent reviews on sites like Google, Yelp, Citysearch and Yahoo.”
One is left to wonder if anything about Sunday Riley is authentic, including its suspiciously large Instagram following of over 300,000. Sure, they’ve been around since 2009, but that’s a lot of people for a relatively obscure cosmetics brand out of Texas. After all, this most recent FTC fake reviews scandal isn’t the first time the brand has raised red flags. Last year, Insider reported on how Riley’s educational and professional background doesn’t actually sync up with her claims of being a legit chemist.
But of course, Sunday Riley isn’t alone when it comes to consumer deception. Emerging brands faking reviews has been a thing since online reviews existed. There are even services dedicated to weeding out the fake from the real, such as Fakespot. As their website says, “Growing suspicious of online reviews? So were we. Fakespot provides consumers with a new way of filtering product reviews to find out what real users are saying about the products you want to buy. Our proprietary technology analyzes millions of product reviews, looking for suspicious patterns and incentivized reviews. We then weed out the reviews we think are unreliable. Don’t take our word for it — You be the judge.”
· Fakespot estimates that 52% of reviews posted on Walmart.com are “inauthentic and unreliable.”
· 30% of Amazon reviews are fake or unreliable.
· About a third of reviews on makeup retailer Sephora and video-game service Steam are also unreliable or fake.
Why does this matter? “Trust and authenticity are keys to buyers today, particularly millennials,” says Russell Winer, Ph.D., a professor and the deputy chair of the marketing department at NYU Stern School of Business. “If that is destroyed, a company can be seriously hurt.” He’s not wrong. Studies have been done that clearly illustrate how important authenticity is to younger consumers when making purchasing decisions.
In a day and age when overall trust in everything is collapsing in America, it is more important than ever for emerging brands to be as transparent and genuine as possible. “Fake it till you make it” is an expression intended to encourage confidence and persistence, not a blatant betrayal of trust and consumer ethics. Remember: authenticity and reputation will always amount to positive brand awareness. If your brand is truly innovative and special, it will find its audience one way or another.