Features

Sarah Lockner – Ecolab

Making her mark by overseeing Ecolab’s IP

During the difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sarah Lockner bore witness to how Ecolab, a global company headquartered in Minnesota, helped sustain others through its products and services for advancing higher levels of cleanliness.

Ecolab’s longtime hospitality, commercial, industrial and healthcare clientele had to maintain some semblance of business as usual while adhering to a slew of voluntary and mandatory safety protocols. Business-to-consumer visibility also took off with the launch of the company’s Ecolab Science Certified program.

Sarah Lockner | Chief Trademark & Marketing Counsel | Ecolab

Sarah Lockner | Chief Trademark & Marketing Counsel | Ecolab

With the increased demand for hand sanitizers and other cleaning products, so grew the potential for trademark infringements and grey market sales. A member of the legal department since 2017 who had been promoted to assistant chief intellectual properties counsel in January 2020—just before COVID-19’s onset—Lockner had her hands full overseeing around 13,000 trademarks as well as the marketing and copyright legal work.

“It can be like Whac-a-Mole,” she tells Vanguard in May from Ecolab’s Saint Paul headquarters. “Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, and we saw more of it during COVID and addressed what we saw.”

It is hard for any company to pinpoint a fraudulent source, especially one that operates in more than 170 countries around the world. But with help from outside counsel, Ecolab succeeded in tracking down infringers, including two who were misusing a significant house mark in China. One has since been closed by court order, while the other case is pending.

“A really big win for us,” says Lockner, who attended one of the hearings half a world away. “These cases can take a while to resolve, and it is always a good feeling to close one out, especially one where the court finds our mark has achieved high reputation in China.”

Magic in marketing

Lockner’s responsibilities include interacting across all of Ecolab’s divisions, so she has a world of solutions and colleagues to support. While Ecolab is mostly a behind-the-scenes partner for businesses in the cleaning and disinfecting space, the pandemic brought these concerns to the forefront. With consumers having new, heightened expectations for cleanliness, the company developed its Ecolab Science Certified program to help drive awareness and address these concerns.

Through collaboration between the legal, regulatory and marketing departments, the ESC program was developed largely to help the hospitality and restaurant industries demonstrate their commitment to cleanliness. With Magic Johnson signed on as a pitchman, commercials included the gregarious basketball legend presenting the seal to a family-owned bakery whose precautions included the Ecolab dispenser for hand-sanitizer.

Sarah Lockner | Chief Trademark & Marketing Counsel | Ecolab

But before any commercial premiered, Lockner would pore over every word. The seal doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a shop’s premises are pristine, just that its owner takes health concerns seriously and uses Ecolab products as directed to mitigate risk to staff and clientele.

“The great thing about working with the marketing personnel was they were extremely inclusive of my function,” Lockner says. “I’d sit in on calls with everybody and address how a line or an image could be interpreted.”

With her input, Ecolab is modernizing its review process for marketing claims. Modern times necessitate adhering to new criteria, she emphasizes, and by undertaking B2C commerce, a company—especially one that sells predominantly B2B —can’t assume customers are as well-informed as those in commercial or industrial management. These lessons are evident in the company’s recent launch of the Ecolab Scientific Clean product line at Home Depot.

100 years young

Ecolab, Lockner assures, can be relied upon to keep up with the times. The company’s now celebrating its centennial and retains vigor as it enters its second century.

One global enterprise initiative the company is growing is its sustainability-focused Ecolab Water for Climate program, which is more than a suite of products and services. It’s a four-step approach to help industrial customers reduce their water and energy consumption through site assessments, technology and auditing.

Lockner is active in the trademarking and marketing claims review to help confirm that the company can back up its claims of helping clientele conserve water and advance their business and sustainability goals. It’s all part of her growing responsibility as the chief trademark and marketing counsel.

There was a time Lockner considered a science-based career. She had an early interest in becoming a veterinarian as a farm girl and North Dakota State University undergrad but caring for critters ultimately gave way to political science. One of her professors, duly impressed with her logic and critical thinking, encouraged Lockner to take the LSAT. She scored well and was accepted in 1999 at the University of California, Berkeley-School of Law.

“That was some initial culture shock,” the native North Dakotan says with a laugh, but she adjusted well and graduated in 2002.

By then, trademark and IP law had become her interests and Lockner says she was mentored by one of the best, Barbara Grahn. A former partner at Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly, where Lockner served as an associate from 2002 to 2004, Grahn has also chaired the American Bar Association’s IP division since 2016 while partnering with the Twin Cities firm Fox Rothschild.

Lockner left Oppenheimer for Winthrop & Weinstine, which is also located in the Twin Cities. By 2007, she was ready for an eight-and-a-half-year stretch as senior IP and division counsel at 3M company. She went on to serve in a similar role at Land O’ Lakes Inc. before arriving at Ecolab in 2017. Given the size of her current growing portfolio, it might be her most robust role yet. And Locker says she and her paralegals Tamara Hardy and Sarah House make a great team.

Lockner is also passionate about community service and served on the board of the Advocates for Human Rights, the Upper Midwest’s largest provider of free legal services to asylum seekers. She’s also been named to the WTR 300: The World’s Leading Corporate Trademark Professionals since 2017.

“Trademark and marketing law is dynamic,” she says. “And challenging.”

View this feature in the Vanguard Summer IV 2023 Edition here.

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