Protecting the business

Safeguarding a 50 billion SEK investment might be considered a heavy workload. But for Lars Ljungholm, VP General Counsel, and his team at The Absolut Company, it’s just another day at the office.

It’s his job to make sure things are played by the book on all markets where The Absolut Company is present and to ensure that all the brands and products in the portfolio are kept out of harm’s way. Everyday. 

Often, great values can be found in developing and protecting intellectual property rights – such as trademarks. How important is the legal work in this value creation? 

– When it comes to protecting our trademarks and other well-known elements – such as the shape of the Absolut bottle – I’d say that our legal work is incredibly important. I remember when I had just gotten this job and met one of the top managers at Pernod-Ricard for the first time, he said ‘Lars, you know that in my opinion you have the second most important job in this company.’ By that he meant that it’s my job to help protect and safeguard their entire 50 billion SEK investment. Another aspect, which is perhaps a little more hands-on, is that we must make sure to protect our brands and our products against trademark infringement and copycats. That is where all our credibility and trust from our consumers lies, so we act on everything we consider to be an infringement of our intellectual property rights. Most of my budget is actually spent on protecting our brands in various ways.

Most of my budget is actually spent on protecting our brands in various ways

How often do you come across cases where you have to take action against trademark infringement of Absolut? 

– Against the portfolio, i.e., all our different brands, we constantly have about 400 infringement and opposition cases globally that we act on. We monitor all the markets we are present in and we keep a close watch on look-a-likes and other intellectual property infringements. Thankfully, those we encounter are to most extent unintentional and there’s often simple and unfortunate mistakes behind the infringement. Usually, they are small players and we try not to ruin their lives. So, a lot of time is spent resolving cases through conversations.

What is your most memorable case? 

– When it comes to misleading products, we always act resolutely. This needs to be done several times a year, so I’ve a couple of cases that I can pick and choose from. One odd example involved a producer in New York who had a hard time understanding how in the world we could consider it to be a problem that they launched a product called Kafhua – with the same look and flavor as our product Kahlúa. Despite many attempts on our side to explain the situation and its implications, they really didn’t give up their claim. So, unfortunately, we had to take them all the way to court – which ended up costing them substantially more than if they’d only listened immediately. But they really didn’t want to comprehend the fact that that they couldn’t sell a product that was basically a direct copy.

Kahlúa campaign from 2019. 

Marketing today is increasingly being done through collaborations with influencers. How does this affect your legal work? 

– It affects us more than you might think. Some 10 years ago, I did not think that my team would sit and scroll through a lot of Instagram accounts during working hours. But now they do! We have to be very careful with how and who we collaborate with and therefore we always go through the history of all proposed influencers to make sure that there is nothing problematic for us in their previous posts. This is super important because we have a number of industry codes that we have committed to follow: i.e., no marketing towards minors, we should always promote responsible drinking and we should show good ethical considerations. And this can be especially problematic when it comes to collaborations with influencers, where a too big part of their followers may be too young. Then we have to decline. We always extract data from Instagram to see what their followers look like. In addition, of course, we also sign agreements where influencers undertake not to publish content that is in violation of the codes we abide to.

One odd example involved a producer in New York who had a hard time understanding how in the world we could consider it to be a problem that they launched a product called Kafhua

Influencer marketing is more cross-border than traditional advertising. How do you legally take into account different rules and regulations in different markets for the same type of content? 

– Firstly, we never direct any type of marketing initiatives or advertising towards markets where alcohol advertising is prohibited. Nor if a type of alcohol advertising violates any local rules. I would also say that we have a very good knowledge of the rules that apply in our 30 top markets. 

You are also responsible for global brands such as Malibu and Kahlúa. How do you conduct that work from Stockholm?  

– I don’t think our work looks any different compared to what we do for Absolut Vodka. Each brand has its own profile and for Absolut Vodka, the Swedish origin is important. But for the legal team, there is no difference. We don’t work exclusively with Swedish law. In fact, the Swedish market only accounts for around one percent of our total sales, so Sweden is not even our main focus. As a company we are Swedish, so certain corporate law, manufacturing regulations and agreements with other Swedish entities are subject to Swedish law, but our global role means that we must have a good understanding of what the legislation looks like around the world. Alcohol is also a very regulated business in many countries, which means that we must be careful about how and where we speak about our products. We have all that competence within my great team here in Stockholm or via our sister companies around the world.

What values do you think Absolut creates? 

– I think Absolut stands for very good values when it comes to inclusion. We are pro LGBTQ and we’re against discrimination. We have healthy and good values within the company that are easy to appreciate as a Swede. We are not political, but human values are treasured. I also think that we are at the forefront when it comes to sustainability and I genuinely think that we have a very healthy and good corporate culture.

Lars Ljungholm, VP General Counsel at The Absolut Company.

Pernod Ricard has a very ambitious sustainability agenda. How well can brands and companies communicate with consumers what they’re actually doing? What governs which claims that can be made? 

– In market law, there is a strong focus on different types of green claims and sustainability claims. Much of the legislation is about not misleading the consumers. For example, if you take a certain type of data and take it out of context, you can’t really use it. And it is therefore important to always have a 360 degree perspective on any environmental claims in advertising. The important thing is that consumers aren’t being misled into believing that we do more or stand out more than we actually do. So, you sometimes have to ask yourself questions about how much our consumers actually understands from the data points we’ve extract and use to back our claims with? Can they make relevant comparisons? This is complicated and we must be transparent about how things really look like and, above all, avoid exaggerated statements that cannot be fully substantiated.

I think Absolut stands for very good values when it comes to inclusion. We are pro LGBTQ and we’re against discrimination

As head of the legal department, you sometimes have to act as the last gatekeeper for whether an idea can, may or should be realized. What’s your view on this – do you occasionally feel like a party crasher? 

– I hate that feeling. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen that often, but when it does, it’s usually because we’ve become involved too late in the process. The work has, so to speak, already derailed. If we instead are invited to take part early in the process, we can act as partner for both the creative and business side. Then it is easier to be solution-oriented and come up with opportunities instead of rising obstacles. But one must also remember that legal is a compliance function. So, don’t kill the messenger. We don’t invent the regulations, but we are aware of them and what restrictions they impose. That’s why you sometimes have to dare to simply say no. If there is a “moose on the table”, it is often our job to call it out.

Abiding to the law feels, perhaps somewhat prejudiced, like a mindset where tradition weighs stronger than the need for change. If so, what is your interpretation of Passion for Progression? 

– To me, Passion for Progressions is primarily about supporting the company in developing. I spend a lot of my team’s resources on campaigns and product development. We are constantly trying to stay one step ahead and try to capture regulatory changes and flag for the business when new opportunities arise.

Abiding to the law feels, perhaps somewhat prejudiced, like a Which values are important to you in your leadership? 

– Personally, it is very important that I always can be myself in any situation. I don’t wear a leadership suit that I put on for work. I want to be perceived as direct and honest but also accessible and responsive. I am there for my team and for the company 24/7 if needed. For me, leadership is about the word counsel = advisor – in the title legal counsel. The legal function has an incredible overview of almost everything that happens within the company. Therefore, it is sometimes a good idea to take off the legal hat and just be a general advisor and sounding board, also on topics outside our functional expertise.

I sometimes compare my job to that of a fire marshal

How has the ongoing pandemic affected your work? 

– In a couple of ways. As of now, almost a year into the pandemic, I’ve more or less learned to master all types of digital meetings. At first, I actually didn’t think it’d work as well as it does. But I also think that my efficiency has been affected a lot. There’s, for obvious reasons, fewer 5-minute ad-hoc discussions in the office and more booked 30-minute meetings back-to-back, which means that I usually sit in front of my screen for a good portion of the day. It has also prolonged my working days, meaning I’m putting in more hours now than I did before.

What are you passionate about at work? 

– I sometimes compare my job to that of a fire marshal. The main part of our work is about carrying out inspections in order to identify and prevent the risk of fires – probably about 90% of our time is spent on efforts to reduce such risk – but the fire fighter and I probably have the thing in common that we both enjoy our professions the most, when the fire alarm starts, despite all of our precautions, and we need to gather our team and lead the work to put out the fire. That’s when the work is most intense, challenging and competitive. It is not the actual conflict in itself that attracts me, but rather the full focus I experience when I feel that what I’m working on is very important to me, to my team and to the company. I am good at crisis management and I find it stimulating. Of course, I can be happy about corporate profits or getting positive feedback, but winning a legal case is what I really find rewarding.

And outside of work? 

– For me, it is to have social interactions. With family and with friends. It can be very unpretentious or super formal. You name it. I just love to hang out with people. At sea, on the golf course or in the ski slopes, or perhaps preferably at the associated spontaneous wine lunches.