Champagne moments: defending drinks brands


Protecting premium drinks brands online requires a proactive approach to infringement and a commitment to responsible promotion. TB&I spoke to Susan Gustafsson, general counsel at Pernod Ricard’s champagne and cognac division, Martell Mumm Perrier-Jouët.

Pernod Ricard’s champagne and cognac division, success is built on prestige. One of the world’s largest drinks producers, the group’s luxury products—Martell cognacs, Mumm and Perrier-Jouët champagnes—have been enjoyed by aristocrats and connoisseurs, from Napoleon Bonaparte to the British royal family, for more than 200 years.

Since the 19th century, all three brands have used a signature stamp or seal to prove their products’ authenticity and preserve their reputation. But in today’s world, protecting your image and trademark is a far more complex business. While social media and the Internet allow premium brands to expand their reach worldwide, it also leaves them exposed to defamation, infringement and abuse.

What are the biggest threats facing your brand online?

The two main types of infringement we encounter online are traditional trademark infringement, such as username abuse and the reproduction of our trademark in a URL or on a web page without our consent, and infringement of our brand image and reputation.

As an alcohol brand, there are strict rules regarding the promotion of alcohol—it should, for example, never be associated with social or sexual success, it should never promote underage drinking and it should always encourage drinking responsibly. We always adhere to this, but when other people use our trademarks in a way that is contrary to these guidelines and our own internal code of ethics, it’s a problem.

We also see other types of infringements, such as design and copyright infringement and passing off , which are a concern, as is the speed at which the social media are developing.

What strategies have you employed to tackle these threats?

Each Pernod Ricard alcohol brand has an independent web presence, but we also have an overall action plan and IP policy that applies to all affi liates.

We have several preventive measures in place: marketing and communications staff receive training on IP issues, there is a global policy in place for registering our brands as usernames and declinations, and the username portfolio is centrally managed through one umbrellaaccount. We try to transfer fans from non-official to official brand pages and transmit our code of ethics and digital guidelines to all external service providers.

We have also put digital surveillance in place: in-house staff and external law firms specialising in IP rights monitor our trademarks and brand pages daily. We receive regular reports listing infringements in order of priority—what needs to be dealt with immediately, what needs to be discussed and what cases need further surveillance but no immediate action. It is impossible to act everywhere, but surveillance helps us catch the worst offences.

When an infringement is spotted, it’s a delicate balance between dealing with the situation, and preventing any kind of backlash that judicial action might cause. We try to avoid issuing cease and desist letters where possible, because it might be seen as censorship, and we have to ask ourselves whether we really want to take strong actions against people who actually “like” our trademarks.

Instead, we have a number of non-judicial actions, including negotiating directly with third party infringers and sending requests to transfer usernames or delete pages. Over time, we’ve found that doing this is more efficient than pursuing a more aggressive approach, and people are more receptive to our concerns.

We have also worked with the group’s marketing and legal teams to identify situations where action is always necessary, such as when content promoting discrimination, violence or irresponsible drinking is made by counterfeiters to promote copies of our products, or companies promoting Pernod Ricard or competing products, without our authorisation.

"When an infringement is spotted, it's a delicate balance between dealing with the situation, and preventing any kind of backlash that judicial action might cause."

Defamation and offensive content is a big concern for brand owners—how do you protect your brands’ image online?

Aside from the situations when we will always take action, incidents involving infringement or a violation of our code of ethics are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, and we always try to explain whatever action we take. If we delete content a third party has posted on our Facebook wall, for example, we will send a message thanking them for their interest in the brand, but explaining that we have to remove content that infringes our trademark or is not in line with our code of ethics.

This is also in line with the self-regulation guidelines that apply to the spirits industry, such as the European Forum for Responsible Drinking, and Distilled Spirit Council of the United States guidelines.

We are very sensitive to freedom of speech, and people have to be able to voice their opinions of our brands, but if false or harmful content is posted, we will take action.

What are the most damaging examples of infringement you’ve come across?

Martell, Mumm & Perrier-Jouët have fortunately not yet been subject to serious infringement, but our trademarks have been used on a number of occasions without our consent.

Last year, we identified a Facebook page, ‘born to be a drunkard’, that displayed the image of our brand and other spirits brands. This is, of course, contrary to our code of ethics and so we asked Facebook to delete the page. We were not successful at the time, but have recently noted that the page has disappeared.

We had more success in a recent case involving YouTube, where we discovered a US rap group using the name of our cognac to promote its music. This is not only a case of traditional trademark infringement—it causes confusion and could lead people to believe there is a connection between the rap group and our brand. In this particular case, after having contacted the rap group directly, we managed to persuade them to significantly reduce the visibility of the video.

How helpful are social media sites in tackling infringement? Should or could they be doing more?

Our first experiences and contacts with sites like Facebook and YouTube were quite difficult—often we would get no response, or a negative response, to our requests. In the past year, we have seen an improvement, particularly with Facebook, but there needs to be even more interaction and dialogue between social media sites and brand owners. Social media need to be more sensitive to our problems and brand owners must think twice before taking systematic aggressive legal actions.

How useful are social media sites in protecting and promoting your brands?

Social media are, without a doubt, a hugely useful tool and provide a fantastic opportunity to spread information about our brands, as we are able to instantly reach thousands of users. But while we have to be active on social media, we also have to be responsible—the promotion of alcohol is a sensitive issue, and we don’t want underage people visiting our pages and seeing our promotions.

In such a vast community, it is difficult to have adequate monitoring in place, and the ease of ‘cutting and pasting’ digital images may result in many unintentional infringements by users who do not understand copyright and trademark laws. But if we continue our surveillance and our focus on risk mitigation strategies, rather than traditional legal remedies, we should be able to catch the worst offences.

This article was first published on 01 September 2012 in World IP Review

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Trademarks and Brands Online