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Got Silk? Why SilkRoad Was Driven to Protect Its Name

SilkRoad took measures to ensure people weren't confusing it with black market website Silk Road.

April 24, 2014
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SilkRoad May 2014

What do you do when your company shares a name with a black market website that’s been busted by the FBI and hacked to the tune of several million dollars?

Executives at SilkRoad, the 11-year-old HR software company, are finding out in the wake of rising notoriety for Silk Road, the 3-year-old underground website accused of illegal drug sales, computer hacking and money laundering.

The two entities share the remotest of connections — a name — with a single space differentiating the Chicago maker of cloud-based HR software from the black market website, which the FBI shut down in October 2013 after accusing its owner of illegal activities. In February, a reincarnation of the original site was on the verge of closing yet again after hackers used a software glitch to steal a reported $2.7 million in bitcoin virtual currency from users’ escrow accounts.

Understanding how SilkRoad, the software company, dealt with a less-than-desirable circumstance not of its making could help other businesses determine how to cope with threats to their own corporate image or brand.

The week that federal agents closed the underground site last fall, traffic to the cloud-based software-maker’s silkroad.com website tripled, to about 99,000 visits, said Ed Vesely, the company’s chief marketing officer.

Understanding how SilkRoad, the software company, dealt with a less-than-desirable circumstance not of its making could help other businesses determine how to cope with threats to their own corporate image or brand.

The activity compelled Vesely to huddle with his marketing team and an outside public relations agency to decide whether to publicly distance itself from its nefarious namesake or pursue trademark infringement. In the end, the company opted not to make a statement or take legal action. It came to that decision after concluding the entities were different enough so that potential buyers wouldn’t mix them up. “If there was a Silk Road in the software business, technology or HR, it would have been a whole different set of actions we would have needed to put in place,” Vesely said. “But the likelihood of confusion was incidental.”

The privately held business didn’t just sit idly by. After the black market site opened, the software-maker added more than a dozen negative keywords to its pay-per-click ad campaigns. The negative keywords block the company’s name from showing up in results when people do searches on such terms as “silk road cocaine,” Vesely said.

The fact that SilkRoad had to devote part of its online ad spending to batting away unwanted search traffic is significant, said Maren Hogan, CEO at consulting firm Red Branch Media. If she were consulting them, Hogan said she might also have discontinued social media ads during a time the black market site was in the news, “to avoid the plethora of articles and blog posts that went live at the time.”

It also helped that the HR software company was established. “Had they been a new company or even going through a company rebrand, I think it could have been devastating for them,” Hogan said.

While Hogan and Vesely are satisfied that SilkRoad customers won’t confuse the two enterprises, the situation could be a chance to investigate an opportunity to rebrand, said Jeanne Achille, CEO of The Devon Group, an HR industry marketing firm. It’s not good to zig and zag every time something negative arises. However, in SilkRoad’s case, “their brand might be due for an overhaul.”

Michelle V. Rafter is a Workforce contributing editor.  Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

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