Guest Editor Ed Wise sat down with Gemma Dreher to chat about what makes a visionary leader. Read their conversation here.
Xerox, Kleenex, Jeep, Vaseline, Band-Aid—these famous trademarks have, to varying degrees, seeped into the English language, sometimes used by consumers not just with the products they represent but off-brand versions of those products as well. It might seem like a good thing, a form of free publicity, but taken too far or allowed to continue unabated, it can mean the loss of the trademark altogether. Both escalator and aspirin, for example, began as trademarks, too.
Velcro Industries BV works as aggressively as the above-mentioned brands to protect its famous name. The patent for the company’s original hook-and-loop fastener expired in 1979, and since then many imitators have flooded the market with copycat products. But as the company tagline says, “There is only one” Velcro brand. “It’s a famous mark,” company vice president and general counsel Gemma Dreher says. “And we embrace the obligation to maintain registrations all over the world and to really invest resources to make sure that the mark is used properly.” Today, Dreher and her team are helping Velcro maintain the integrity of its trademarks and trade names, both through trademark enforcement and by training employees, customers, and distributors on how to properly use the trademark. Her efforts to diversify her own department are helping her extend that training worldwide.
Dreher has served in the legal field for a full quarter century. She began in private practice in New Hampshire but quickly realized just how few lawyers in her area were focused on intellectual property, so she began developing expertise in specialties such as intellectual property licensing, technology transfers, and the use of intellectual property in financial transactions. The work led her in-house; first to Pragmatech Software and then BAE Systems, before Velcro hired her in 2011.
According to Dreher, innovative companies such as Velcro manage intangible, knowledge-based assets in much the same way that most companies manage physical assets, tracking them on balance sheets and looking for ways to leverage them for revenue. Velcro has an intellectual property portfolio comprising close to 500 patents and hundreds of trademark registrations all across the globe. Dreher’s team looks for ways to maximize the value of Velcro’s intangible assets and integrates intangible-asset management into the business strategy. “The brand is such an important part of who we are; brand awareness is so important,” Dreher says. “Our trademarks are a core part of our portfolio, and we emphasize the protection of those assets.”
“Velcro is a brand icon, and how relevant it is to hear from Gemma Dreher, the person responsible for protecting the Velcro trademark from a legal perspective. It is also very illustrative in understanding the tremendous dollar value a brand can possess, beyond the tangible value of the product. It should make us all more aware of the brands we represent, and our duty in being good stewards of our brands and all they stand for.” —Guest Editor Ed Wise
This brand awareness is a key part of the Velcro culture, so Dreher and her team coach new employees to be accurate brand ambassadors, encouraging them to think of “Velcro” only as a proper adjective—Velcro Brand tape, Velcro Brand hook-and-loop fastener, etc.—and never as a noun or a verb. Her team also trains employees on how to spot and report misuse of the company trademark online, on billboards, in magazines, and elsewhere, and there are actually dedicated paralegals on staff to collect and look into the employees’ sightings. Dreher herself is an active member of the Association of Corporate Counsel, and she tries to speak at least once a quarter on the value of the Velcro brand and how the company enforces its intellectual property and polices its trademarks.
Dreher has four direct reports that focus on employment, intellectual property, compliance, and contracts, as well as nine additional people she considers members of her core team. Together they also help conduct contract, trademark, and compliance training with employees. The team works with the human resources department to conceptualize the computer modules and live sessions that teach employees how such legal matters and processes work in different jurisdictions and from one culture to another. “We’re a global company,” Dreher says. “We show up in just about every country in the world—certainly every continent.”
Because of the company’s international reach, Dreher tries to look beyond traditional legal skill sets when filling positions in her own department. She looks for people who’ve lived in other parts of the world, who are aware of cultural differences, and who’ve learned additional languages so that her department can interface equally well with employees in South America, Europe, and Asia.
Her passion for diversity is personal: she’s on the board of the New Hampshire Women’s Foundation, and, with two adopted daughters from Liberia (she has five children in total), she also works closely with the Voss Foundation and FACE Africa to help bring clean water and sanitation facilities to the continent. She therefore sees her department’s well-roundedness as one of its greatest strengths. “If you bring together a team that has diverse backgrounds—from a cultural perspective, from a heritage or a lineage perspective, from a lifestyle perspective, from a gender perspective—you’re going to find that you’ve got people that are thinking about things differently and pushing each other to be more creative,” she says.
Through her own efforts and those of her balanced team, Dreher continues to protect the Velcro name, and even her family helps with the work. “My youngest, Ellie, is nine years old; if we’re in a store and someone says, ‘Oh, look, there’s Velcro on those shoes,’ she’ll put her hands on her hips and say, ‘It’s hook and loop, and it better be Velcro Brand.’” Dreher says. “I say it’s the Ellie standard: if you hear misuse, you need to not be afraid to put your hands on your hips and speak up.”