Milking Mengniu’s IP portfolio for value

Milking Mengniu’s IP portfolio for value

With an annual dairy production capacity of nearly 13 million tonnes, China Mengniu Dairy Company manufactures and offers a diverse range of products, including cheese, ice cream, liquid milk and milk formula. These products are underpinned by an extensive portfolio that encompasses all types of IP rights, including over 4,000 registered trademarks and another 3,000 trademark applications. Despite being “a young in-house team”, the IP department has a forward-thinking mindset and proactiveness that saw it take home this year's Asia-Pacific Team of the Year Award at the WTR Industry Awards.

Get involved with the business

A ‘traditional’ in-house IP team is often perceived to be heavily reliant on other departments. Communication can be delayed and opportunities to leverage intellectual property can go untapped. Teams are also often under pressure to form short-term plans or adopt unsustainable enforcement strategies, following quarterly or annual business reports.  

By contrast, IP management at Mengniu begins with communication. “A successful IP registration and prosecution strategy involves the IP team going further upstream of IP creation to empower and co-create with researchers and IP creators, as well as going further downstream to the business and product sales [departments] to enable more successes in IP commercialisation and maximise the value and returns of intangible assets,” says Eugene Ho, director of research and intellectual property. Thus, the company can create “higher quality intellectual property and innovations” that ensure a smoother registration process, and which help to form more practical and effective IP policies.

Successful enforcement also lies in being proactive and having a forward-thinking mindset. “An effective in-house team should be deeply engaged in the business to [identify] the core and peripheral intellectual property, as well as be able to lead, advise and cocreate strategies with the other business functions,” Ho says. “It should be constantly thinking about how intellectual property can empower and enable the business to achieve better strategies, successes and outcomes.”

Thus, Ho and his team constantly ask themselves how they can enable and empower other aspects of the business to grow and succeed. “We are always discovering new needs and applications of our IP function,” he says.

Training, audits and reorganisation

Over the past year, the team has been particularly busy with in-house prosecution and enforcement. Among other things, it conducted internal IP education and training programmes for over 400 in-house research and development personnel covering “fundamental and personalised IP knowledge to enable the generation of high-quality innovations and intellectual property” and “leveraging patent search and analytics for competitive IP intelligence”, Ho says.

“[We were also involved in] research, business and IP co-creation,” he continues. “IP professionals worked closer with and empowered our senior management, research and development and business units with IP intelligence and insights to enable better business decisions, product strategies and quality innovations.”

In addition, the team conducted IP audits and reviewed the company’s IP assets. This meant:

  • formulating more meaningful IP strategies;
  • maximising the return on investments, value and impact of core IP assets; and
  • identifying redundant IP assets, which could be sold or licensed to other parties. 

All this IP work is split between 12 legal and IP professionals stationed in:

  • the legal affairs division, which manages trademark registrations, IP-related litigations and contracts; and
  • the research and innovation division, which oversees all patent registrations, patent analytics and strategy, including inventions, utility and design patents.

With new IP professionals welcomed to the team, Ho further reorganised everyone’s scope of responsibilities to streamline communications and internal processes. “This improved work efficiency and enabled our IP professionals to spend more time in IP co-creations, education and expanding our IP support to more business units and divisions,” he explains.

Eugene Ho and the Mengniu IP team
Eugene Ho and the Mengniu IP team

    Still a young team

    Nonetheless, Ho acknowledges that it is still “a young in-house team” that requires “more talents and capabilities to satisfy and help co-create all of the company’s ever-growing IP needs and plans”. Despite spending a year-and-a-half building the Mengniu IP function, global uncertainties have “somewhat affected our plans for innovation, research and development and business strategies, which disrupted our plans to build an IP dream team”, he reflects.

    The ideal IP team would be deeply engaged with all aspects of the business, including:

    • business strategies;
    • collaborations;
    • IP commercialisation;
    • marketing;
    • mergers and acquisitions;
    • product innovation;
    • senior management decision-making; and
    • spin-offs.

    “Currently, [the IP team has] been engaged in almost all of the above and has been using IP effectively to enable most of Mengniu’s endeavors,” Ho notes. “We have made great progress in building a great IP team with strong trust, comradery and teamwork that empowers Mengniu’s IP needs effectively.”

    Senior leaders must step up

    As an adjunct lecturer at the National University of Singapore and a mentor for budding IP enthusiasts, Ho believes that the next generation of IP professionals will have more diverse backgrounds, experiences and skillsets to realise the true potential of an IP function. “They may come equipped with accounting, business development, corporate strategy, entrepreneurship, marketing, market research, sales or even venture capital experience and skillsets to diversify the capabilities and mindset of the IP team,” he says.

    He therefore encourages other companies and IP leaders to actively engage with the next generation. “Be more creative in onboarding younger IP professionals (eg, provide IP mentorship opportunities, IP management trainee programmes and cross job function exchanges) and introduce more diversity to the IP team,” he insists.

    “Encourage IP professionals to be more connected with the business,” he adds. "It enables them to formulate long-term, meaningful and sustainable IP strategies that highlight the significance and impact of an effective IP function to a company.”

    Trust, support and mandate from senior management have been instrumental in enabling Mengniu to achieve its IP goals. “With their support, the IP team [has] constantly produced meaningful outcomes and provided strategic IP support to enable business success,” notes Ho.

    Years of hard work have placed Mengniu seventh in Rabobank’s 2022 Global Dairy Top 20 and have raised the company's brand value to over $9.7 billion. “It takes collective effort and contributions from everyone in an IP team,” Ho concludes. “Our team takes great pride in its daily IP work and I am heartened that their efforts have been recognised. I am most humbled to be given the opportunity to lead them.”

    Shortlisted for Asia-Pacific Team of the Year:

    • ASICS Corporation
    • Bilibili
    • Lazada
    • Mengniu Group
    • UPL

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