brand pirates

Brand Pirates: Hijacking Your Story and Attention

RJ Licata, Sr. Director of Marketing

Key Points

  • Leading brands are facing a slew of non-traditional online competitors who hijack their narratives and steal consumer attention. 
  • Brand pirates include grey-area competitors, content hubs and publishers, affiliate sites, social media influencers, and review platforms.
  • Brand marketers must know how to correctly identify brand pirates and attention competitors. This guide will get you started.

In a previous article, we redefined customer attention, divided it into categories, and explored a new lens for building authentic customer relationships. This approach helps brands identify and understand their true competitors. Adding “attention competitors,” or brand pirates, into the mix with traditional competitors helps brands avoid gaps in their digital marketing strategies.

With this new perspective, a deep dive into the various non-traditional competitors brands must compete with is in order. 

They’re called brand pirates because they’re adept at hijacking your brand story and using it for their own purposes. Brand pirates destabilize your control, rob you of consumer attention, create havoc along the customer journey, and damage trust. And given that 46% of consumers would pay more to purchase from trusted brands — it’s important to defend yourself.

Brand pirates may not be exactly who you’d expect, but this article will identify and explain them all. 

Who are you really competing against?

In the post, Declining Brand Trust: What It Is And How To Fix It, brand pirates fall into the following categories: Grey area competition, content hubs and publishers, affiliate sites, social media, and review platforms.

Brand pirates are an additional, often unrecognized, threat to your brand augmenting the risk traditional competitors pose.  

In digital spaces, brand pirates are actually more insidious than traditional competitors because they suck up substantial online real estate and outrank you in search, making your content and products less discoverable by your consumers.

The stakes have never been higher

Lost digital real estate represents lost opportunities to build an optimized buyer’s journey, capture authentic customer relationships and build trust.

Brands with traditional competitor tunnel vision are losing the online attention battle.


Every brand pirate that leading brands overlook can create major damage across the brand’s online market.

Why are the stakes so high now? The simple answer is value. 

Media, publishers, bloggers, affiliates, etc. understand the sheer earning potential of high-ranking content. Brand pirates are in the attention business and they’re good at outcompeting brands for their own audiences. 

The first step is knowing exactly who is usurping your brand’s attention.

Introducing: your true competitors

Here’s who you need to look out for:

Grey area competition

“Grey area” competition occurs when brands outside each other’s core offering or industry become attention competitors. These are often brands with complementary services that end up in direct competition because consumers’ desires tie them together.

For example, you’re looking for a new home. Entering the real estate market typically means getting a real estate agent, getting homeowners insurance, and getting a mortgage. Someone looking for one is also likely looking for the other two as well. 

Even though Zillow, GEICO, and Wells Fargo offer unique things: realtor services, home insurance, and mortgages, they all compete for attention. Each one wins substantial value and control by outranking the other two — even if the product or service offering is in a different lane. Each brand should view the others as brand pirates, or non-traditional competitors.

All brands are impacted by grey area competition. Attention loss, failure to own the online market space, declining trust, etc., are a few risks. Without strategic search intent analysis brands struggle to identify the crossover areas where grey area competitors thrive.

Content hubs and publishers

Media sites small and large, bloggers, content farms, informational sites, financial and medical resource hubs — these are all brand pirates.

This includes listicles and review lists, guides, news stories, blog posts, general articles, and anything that outranks your content and funnels potential consumer attention away from your brand.

Publishers are brand pirates because they are experts at stealing attention and telling brand stories on their own terms. Brands trying to build real trust must do all they can to own and protect their stories from third-party publishers.

Content hubs have a few characteristics that make them a threat, including:

  • Highly optimized content
  • Long content lifecycle 
  • Very popular with audiences
  • Perceived as non-biased and trustworthy
  • Professional and often numerous staff
  • Large archives of content
  • Established and authoritative

Large media sites are brand narrative power brokers in the sense that they can make or break a brand and cause real damage during negative news cycles. News articles, investigative reporting, and especially gossip-driven sensational stories can last forever.

Smaller publishers (especially blogs and content hubs) tend to dominate the informational search landscape. This gobbles up the results, crowding brands out — unless brands become publishers themselves.

Affiliate sites

Affiliates are the result of bloggers and smaller publishers monetizing the attention their content generates. There are also major publishing brands — think The Strategist — in the space that dominate markets across the web.

The main goal for these sites is to write content that inspires visitors to click through to an online retailer, make a purchase, and generate fees. 

They make money by siphoning brand attention and are brand pirates because their content fractures positive brand narratives while simultaneously stealing attention and traffic. Affiliates want to be a middleman, but they end up hijacking your customer journey.

Many electronics brands, for example, perceive this as a wholly positive and symbiotic relationship. 

“As long as product X is on the listicle, we get free positive exposure, recognition, and affiliate sales… right?”


Affiliates are a threat, both financially and attention-wise. Their lists outrank brands, they have high trust despite biased incentives, they steal brand narratives for their own purposes, and they get in the way of an enjoyable customer experience. 

Affiliates can be useful if deployed strategically by a brand that has done the hard work of building a strong online presence. When a brand’s content owns the top spots on search, the brand can work with affiliates to further push out competitors and brand pirates, using affiliate sites as allies to take up more online real estate.

Review sites and platforms

Look up any product category, sub-category, or specific product. What do you see? Reviews, reviews, reviews. You even see commonly asked questions like “Is brand X actually good,” plus video reviews.

These reviews come from independent review sites, review platforms, mega-retailers, individuals, and more. The minute any product, music, movie, or other content drops, you can find a review.

Reviews are so common because consumers see them as a powerful research and comparison tool. We constantly search “product X reviews” to assess ratings and gather up social proof to make a decision. It doesn’t matter if the reviews are positive or negative, it matters that they grab our attention and take control of brand narratives when not properly controlled. 

Reviews and review platforms are challenging because they:

  • Usurp brand narrative — that’s their whole job.
  • Lack transparency.
  • Outrank brands due to search algorithms.
  • Don’t allow brands to answer or counter reviews.
  • Often last, hurting a brand for decades.
  • Cannot be verified as true or false — they are subjective.
  • Are highly trusted, established, and popular.
  • Let anyone review, even trolls, interested parties, and bad-faith actors

Consumer empowerment has been transformative for consumers and has actually created the opportunity for more beneficial brand-consumer relationships. Consumers began to ask more from brands, and brands have found ways to deliver. 

Some aspects of empowerment — namely, reviews — have gained too much leverage and aren’t accountable enough to brands.

The border between review site and affiliate marketer is a thin one. A subtle difference — review sites answer “Is product X good or bad?” but affiliates answer “What’s the best product in category X?” Both can steal your narrative.


Social media

The least accountable frontier, social media has fairly limited moderation but massive engagement and usage. Each day, an estimated 500 million tweets are sent globally. Posts on social grab a tremendous amount of attention and can be chaotic, so brands must be on guard.

Social media’s most troubling brand threats include: 

  • “Wild West” mentality that prevents brand control
  • Potential for a brand to confuse its own narrative by chasing trends
  • Social posts rank highly in search engines
  • Bots and spam issues
  • The risk of fake accounts posing as a brand
  • Mockery of brand narrative
  • Popular and controversial content that sticks around forever
  • Negative brand news spreads in seconds
  • Misinformation is rampant
  • Self-imposed executive or brand reputational harm
  • Anonymity emboldens provocation, belligerence, and cruelty

Social media is made up of millions of mini brand pirates who, together, can cause untold damage. It’s a major hurdle in the pursuit of authentic customer relationships and one that must be carefully monitored and managed. 

Final thoughts

At this point you may be asking yourself, “What can I do about brand pirates?” 

The great news is that when brands optimize the online assets it owns and build a strategy around them, it’s possible to turn some brand pirates into brand defenders.

For the rest, this strategy protects your brand’s narrative, expands your control of the online market, and builds authentic customer relationships.

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