In-house insight: Christian Louboutin

Christian Louboutin group general counsel Xavier Ragot exclusively reveals how the legal department at one of the world’s most famous luxury brands has spent the past decade improving education and awareness in the IP space to fight counterfeiting and protect its iconic red-sole mark.

Over the past decade, Christian Louboutin has made a proactive effort to educate consumers and authorities alike on the value of IP protection. As a result, it has gone from being considered crazy for talking about counterfeiting in the luxury goods industry to becoming the poster child of what a collaborative, cross-border IP protection strategy can achieve for a high-end, high-target brand.

As group general counsel, Xavier Ragot’s role is to supervise business and corporate affairs, IP enforcement, portfolio management and risk assessment, group privacy compliance and policy, the legal budget and policy implementation. The test of his time management comes when he has to juggle an already impressive workload with other responsibilities, including participating in discussions with the management board, the steering committee, the president of the company or Christian Louboutin himself.

Flexibility is therefore vital. But so is having a clear structure in place so that people know exactly who to go. “You have to make sure that within the organisation, people – in particular, managers – know who the key contact in the legal department is in relation to key topics,” he emphasises. That way, the legal team can create an environment where sharing information across functions comes naturally.

This helps everyone to work more efficiently and debunks the myth of legal being a barrier to creativity. “They swiftly realise that legal is not the guy who is going to make trouble. On the contrary, if you put the right team in place, it will help a lot and could facilitate a business project, help to solve a new issue or come up with a new idea.”

When it comes to external partners, however, the team has the freedom to shop around. “Most of the time we are not exclusive in certain territories or cities,” he reveals. “We will go to the individual that we think would be the best option for this type of matter. We feel quite free to work with anyone we want.”

In fact, the company will occasionally split work between several law firms if it believes that will deliver the best results. And the benefits go both ways. “We like to push for creativity and test the boundaries,” Ragot explains. “So it’s also interesting for them to work with us.”

The unkept secret to protecting the red-sole mark

One of the biggest enforcement challenges for the legal team is protecting the world-famous red-sole mark. But this is also one of its biggest success stories. “Red sole is a great challenge, as you can imagine. But compared to where we were a few years ago, nothing is the same,” Ragot reflects. “Now, most people know about the red sole, which really helps when you’re trying to enforce it.”

The great strides made by the team over the past 10 years are a result of two factors: awareness and education. “We have increased awareness significantly regarding the red sole. It has been a cornerstone of many communication initiatives globally; in the legal department, every time we had the opportunity, we would go to the local authorities, trademark offices or courts and we would explain and explain and explain again what the trademark is, what is covered and what it means for the company. Ten years ago a lot of people wondered how you could protect a colour for a fashion item, but now they just get it.”

But the shift to digital has created a whole new set of challenges. As a result, the brand relies heavily on third-party providers to help monitor online content. “When you start to coordinate actions in relation to a platform or a country or region, you can see the effect,” Ragot says. “But you have to keep evolving because infringers will find a way to come back. It’s a never-ending story.”

For this reason, the company also makes use of investigators on the ground, which has led to significant seizures of counterfeit goods around the world. “When you manage to put all this information together and run an action, it can be very successful and it’s a strong signal that you send to everyone,” he asserts.

Having e-commerce platforms on board is also vital. “Without them, you’re doomed,” Ragot admits. But while many offer multiple tools for brand protection, getting them to side with big names can be a challenge. Where platforms are reluctant to get involved or even oppose a brand owner’s position, “you have to be ready to fight for your rights”, he states. “Sometimes it means to litigate with them as well, which is quite rare, and a pity, but sometimes it’s the only way to get a result.”

How Stopfake broke luxury brand silence on counterfeiting

Challenges aside, the legal department realised early on how to utilise technology to its advantage. In 2010 it launched the Stopfake portal, an easy-to-use online platform on which consumers can report fake goods, confirm authorised retailers and access details of the brand’s latest anti-counterfeiting efforts.

“At the time, the legal department was just two people and we were receiving messages from people that had suffered abuse online and thought that we were responsible, because it was our brand being abused and our product being copied,” Ragot recalls. “We had to do something. As your brand is still on this product, it is still an experience with your brand.”

The aim of Stopfake was twofold: to communicate to consumers how much the company was already doing to combat counterfeiting and to create a space for people to spot fake offerings and discuss the brand and counterfeiting issues.

Some users simply want help to be reimbursed for fake goods they have purchased. The team then asks that they either destroy the goods or forward them on to the company. Others use the platform to notify the company of any marketplaces where they have seen counterfeit Christian Louboutin products for sale. Whatever the motivation, the platform provides Ragot’s team with a far wider reach than it could ever have on its own. “We’re able to achieve much more than if we were just in our office,” he reflects.

While this sounds like an obvious solution for brand owners trying to extinguish counterfeiting fires around the world, Christian Louboutin’s transparency in its efforts makes it an anomaly in the luxury goods industry. “I have to admit that when we initially launched Stopfake, we were considered crazy,” he recalls. “In the luxury world, you don’t talk about these things, so we were not supported.”

But with public awareness of the dangers of counterfeiting rising every year, the company saw the value of communicating with consumers on what it was doing to protect not only its IP rights but their safety as well.

“Behind counterfeit goods you have bad people and bad behaviours. It is not just the fact that they are manufacturing these goods, it is the working conditions of the people producing them or the way they are made – and people are becoming more conscious of that,” Ragot reflects. “We are not afraid to talk about it and we actually partner to do something against it, because we all have something win.”

Indeed, the brand benefits from having unlimited eyes and ears on the ground, while consumers can be assured that Christian Louboutin will take action to fight for their rights and concerns.

Although the industry seems to be opening up more, progress remains slow. “People often want to hear about Stopfake or they say ‘that’s great what you’re doing’ but very few of them receive the support within their organisation to do the same,” Ragot muses. “You’ll probably have the IP people who are ready and willing to try to do something, but when you talk about that to the communication team or top management, they don’t want to get involved.”

What works for one brand may not work for everyone though. For Christian Louboutin at least, the decision to talk openly and honestly has clearly been the right one. Stopfake has been a huge success – not only in terms of helping to clear the streets of counterfeit goods, but by helping to build a loyal customer base with easy access to the people responsible for protecting the brand they love.

(A version of this article first appeared on the WTR platform on 26 May 2021.)

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