Maria, a 25-year-old with blonde hair, is thrilled with the retirement services offered by the startup Coverion. She is so impressed that she is willing to vouch for the brand new company on their website, going so far as to include a photo of herself.
Similarly, Michaela, 28, has complete trust in the startup Suprsafe’s insurance policies. In the future, she will safeguard all her valuables with their service, she writes. All thanks to Suprsafe. She also includes a photo.
The problem? Maria and Michaela are the same person and use the exact same picture. The testimonials are fake. And it gets even juicier: The insurance-tech startups, which fib to their clients, are a subsidiary of Allianz X, a recently established accelerator funded by Allianz Global Investors.
Both startups offer financial services, promising security and trust, and yet they use fake customer testimonials.
Maria, in real life, is named Louise
Coverion and Suprsafe are clever about it. Both websites showcase a number of testimonials with satisfied customers – complete with photo, name and age. The detailed descriptions are meant to encourage authenticity and seriousness. Anyone who visits the site should leave thinking that these people, and their experiences, really exist. And they would have, that is, if there hadn’t been the mishap with duplicated profile pictures.
As it turns out the satisfied customer is neither Maria nor Michaela – her name is Louise Andriaensen. She lives in Antwerp, Belgium, and works in Sales and Marketing at a company called Eventigrate. The portrait of Andriaensen is a stock photo, meaning companies can buy it and use it on their website. Similar to how Nivea advertises products on their website using her smiling portrait.
Michaela isn’t the only one writing praise on the Allianz startups’ websites: Peter, 42, is also thrilled with Suprsafe. But he, just like Maria and Michaela, also came from a photo database. His portrait can be found online dozens of times. Thanks to his bright white teeth, Peter is often seen advertising hygiene products (examples here, here, here and here) or even as an official team member for dozens of law firms and other companies (here and here).
When approached by Gründerszene, Allianz X says that in these instances the photographs and names were changed for “data protection reasons,” but that the quotes are real, and they simply forgot to include the appropriate reference. Both websites are going to be reworked so as to explain “this context” to potential customers.
Two out of every three customers reads ratings before making a purchase
These testimonials, even fake ones, play a surprisingly large role in customers’ purchasing decisions. According to a survey conducted by Bitkom, a German digital association, testimonials are the most important factors a potential customer considers before reaching a decision. Two-thirds of respondents read these opinions before making a purchase, meaning a fake testimony can make all the difference.
Many young startups see fake testimonials as a cavalier crime. They simply want to come across professional and competent, despite their lack of customers. What better way to support their professionalism than through customer comments?
Unfortunately the law does not take this as lightly as the startups.
Fake testimonials are false advertising
Fake testimonials are a form of misleading or false advertising. “If commercial advertising is deliberately obscured by companies,” writes lawyer Carsten Ulbricht, in a blog post about buying user opinions online, this violates laws against unfair competition.
Misrepresentations are defined as “untrue statements made about a product or a service.” The only way to hold dishonest startups accountable is for their competitors to take legal action. With the help of a court, the competition can force them to remove these fake testimonials and they can also sue for damages.
The Allianz startups are not alone when it comes to imaginative customer reviews. At least one Rocket Internet venture has also taken creative license when it comes to their testimonials.
This is how it came to be that the British dry cleaning and laundry startup, Zipjet, found their three very satisfied customers: Mark, Jennifer and Natalie. All three are also featured on Netex, a Dutch competitor’s site, with only slightly changed quotes. The biggest difference is that Mark is now named Hans.
Another British website, Whatsyouroffer.co.uk, also advertises with these exact same faces: James, Zara and Shelly, each equally enthusiastic about the company’s service. Who knows, maybe there is a special discount for taking all three photos.
Zipjet’s Testimonial Trio
It isn’t just Zipjet’s english site that struggles to find real, happy customers. Their German site also features smiling stock photos posted under the guise as satisfied customers: A woman named Anne, who supposedly works as a journalist, no longer needs to worry about her laundry. On a different site she works for a consulting firm, under the pseudonym Diana.
In response to questions asked by Gründerszene, Zipjet’s co-founder, Florian Färber, says that quotes and photos have been swapped out on both websites. He did not comment on any further questions.
Identifying these fake testimonials usually does not take much time. Sometimes all it takes is a single glance, like in this case: The startup Carnilo sells a real lawn that dog owners can place in their apartment. This allows their four-legged friends to leave their stinky little heaps behind as nature intended.
The startup’s concept isn’t the only oddity: After sifting through four or so, likely authentic dog photos posted with positive testimonials, interested customers will find Karin and Finley’s story – accompanied by a photo that immediately stands out as a stock image.
This photo can be found on nearly 100 other websites, often used to advertise geriatric care and dental hygiene. In response to questioning, founder Katerina Capellmann says the testimonial is from a real customer, but for lack of a photo, the startup selected one from a photo database.
Regardless of whether it is a established company or a young startup: Not deceiving customers should be inherent to every founder’s code of honour. And companies that struggle to find just three satisfied customers should really consider taking a long hard look at their business model.
This article originally appeared on Gründerszene.
Translation by Christine G. Coester