Keeping It Safe

The senior assistant general counsel of Polaris outlines his plans to protect and strengthen Polaris’s innovation and global brand

For Polaris, intellectual property protection is imperative. Polaris builds and sells all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, and motorcycles. Customers who buy these vehicles, and the employees who design and build them, want the best machines and are passionate about their brand.

That’s why Polaris pushes the limits of innovation and why it’s so necessary to protect Polaris’s innovations and brand. It’s also why the work of Mike Mitchell and his team is a core component of the company’s business model. Mitchell, senior assistant general counsel, directs the IP and compliance teams to ensure Polaris’s innovations and brands are protected. To do so effectively, he outlines three initiatives for Modern Counsel that in-house lawyers must prioritize.

Becky Sullwold
Paralegal, Manager

Sullwold manages trademark prosecution, licensing and brand enhancement, and protection. “Becky works tirelessly to protect all of the Polaris brands and integrates extremely well with the business teams to drive excellent results in our trademark program.”

Eric Severson
IP Attorney

Severson focuses on the protecting Polaris’s technology. “Eric drives internal processes and effectively builds internal relationships to strengthen and enhance Polaris’s ability to protect its innovation.”

Petra Ribbens
Legal Director EMEA

Ribbens heads the Legal function at Polaris’s EMEA headquarters in Switzerland. “Petra builds very strong relationships with the business to manage risk and keep initiatives on track.”

Larry Keller
Director, Product Compliance

Keller manages the global product compliance teams in the United States and Europe. “Larry has built a reputation of integrity both internally and externally that helps Polaris plan and manage for compliance.”

Aasha Wanless
Director, Trade Compliance

Wanless manages global trade compliance teams in the United States, Mexico, India, and Poland. “Aasha constantly pushes her compliance team to think and plan ahead and is very effective at getting her trade compliance team a seat at the table during early planning.”

1. Building Relationships

In the twelve years that Mitchell has been with Polaris, the company has grown from $1.5 billion to about $5 billion. In that time, he has built strong internal and external relationships. These relationships are necessary, he says, for him to do his job properly, adding that the legal department also needs these strong relationships to enhance its IP protection as Polaris grows.

“We used our acquisition of the Indian Motorcycle brand to strengthen internal processes and awareness around trademark protection, and we’ve made sure it remains built into the planning cycle,” he says.

Polaris created “trademark representatives” for the business groups that now work regularly with the legal team to monitor all the company’s brands.

“Maintaining these relationships is critical,” Mitchell says. “Legal and the trademark representatives work together closely. Together, we plan better, react faster, and often detect issues before they become problems.”

Their efforts have paid off. Mitchell says the company increased trademark registrations globally by more than 50 percent and intensified its enforcement of trademarks.

“We have a 98 percent success rate of shutting down infringing uses of our trademarks.”

2. Plugging In

Time and awareness, Mitchell says, are the tools to success when protecting IP and ensuring compliance. These are only achieved with strong relationships, and if one has become part of the business planning cycle.

“It’s about plugging into your clients’ planning process at the right time, and demonstrating how you can add value to their business plan,” Mitchell says.

Mitchell explains that in-house lawyers should strive to ensure that consulting legal and compliance comes early in the planning.

“You want a voice at the table when you can provide constructive advice, not just eleventh hour crisis management,” he says, adding that the early work it takes to get into early planning meetings is worth it. “If lawyers are brought in earlier, their advice will be more helpful to the business, and you will be asked back.”

3. Staying Proactive

Not all IP law is the same, but Mitchell says the key to effective IP protection is to be proactive.

“You have patented IP and non-patented IP (such as trade secrets), and then trademark and brand,” he says. “They all have unique challenges and different strategies, but it comes down to proactive planning.”

This means doing more than waiting for complaints and responding to them with cease-and-desist letters.

“The Internet gives you a wonderful ability to actively monitor your brand,” he says. “Polaris has worked closely with the business and outside counsel to improve its monitoring tools, and has become very effective in shutting down websites improperly using its brands.”

Mitchell also stresses the need to stay ahead of the growth of the business. When growing internationally, he continues, companies need trademarks registered well ahead of their market plans. Staying ahead is equally critical when protecting technology innovation.

“If possible, you want a plan in place before you have to speak to anyone outside of the building,” Mitchell says.

To that end, Polaris created an internal cross-functional team led by its legal department with the purpose of ensuring a clear strategy for protecting the company’s future technology plans.

“At the end of the day, our industry is all about the passion to make and ride the best products,” Mitchell says. “Our role in legal is to ensure that we understand those plans and to find ways to effectively support and protect that growth.”