Monday interview: Eleanor Coates, senior trademark attorney

You don't have to delve too far into Scotland's food and drink sector to unearth some heady numbers. Collectively, the industry was worth well in excess of £14 billion last year, supported some 119,000 jobs and enjoyed a growth rate within food manufacturing that was twice that of the UK average.
Elaenor Coates. Picture: Iain McLeanElaenor Coates. Picture: Iain McLean
Elaenor Coates. Picture: Iain McLean

And, despite inflationary and Brexit headwinds, industry bosses recently set out a vision to more than double turnover in the sector to £30bn by 2030.

That aptly named “Ambition 2030” blueprint identifies three pillars on which the industry can build further growth: skills and people, supply chain and innovation. A raft of new product launches, rebrandings and export initiatives are in the pipeline, which should provide plenty to chew on for trademark professionals like Eleanor Coates.

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The Kinross-born economics graduate qualified as a trademark attorney in 2005 and joined Glasgow-headquartered Murgitroyd a year later. Over 40 years or so, the Aim-quoted firm has grown to become of the most prominent players in the field of intellectual property (IP) and patent law with a headcount in excess of 250 and a network of offices spanning Europe and beyond.

Senior trademark attorney Coates has worked with prominent food and drink brands such as Highland Spring, Merrydown, Shloer and Speyside Glenlivet, and given the predicted growth of the sector and its global aspirations, her in-tray is likely to overspill in the coming months.

“When it comes to branding, consumer goods can have a shelf life of maybe only two or three years and then people start tweaking with the packaging,” she observes. “The market continually moves forward so those brands have to move forward – they have to stand out from the crowd on the shelf.

“It is an interesting area in that respect and very much subject to trends. The packaging is so important in terms of appealing to the consumer. If your brand is deemed to be old or not current then there is a risk that it could fall down.”

Speaking ahead of The Scotsman’s annual food and drink conference, which takes place on 14 November, Coates says that provenance, authenticity and sustainability have become key to many brands’ success. She highlights the efforts that water producer Highland Spring has made in this regard – protecting its Perthshire estate and source of natural spring water from potential contaminants and pollutants.

The company, which now bottles more than 560 million litres of water a year and recently reported its third consecutive year of £100 million-plus sales, has its own “Guardian of the Source”, who is responsible for interpreting all of the data from the rainfall, groundwater levels and abstraction of the water.

“Highland Spring operates in an industry where there are regulations about what can be put onto labels. They have gone down the road that there is more to the business than the spring water that they are extracting.”

On the subject of stronger tipples, Coates says that the firm has “probably had more trade mark applications for gin distilleries in the past couple of years than in the previous ten”. It’s a sector that appears to be riding a high at present, with some commentators believing that it has the potential to replicate the global success of the Scotch whisky industry.

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“What we are seeing is very much in trend with what is happening in the marketplace,” adds Coates, who began working in London for the Patent Office (now UKIPO) as a search room assistant and hearings clerk following her graduation from the University of Glasgow with an MA (Hons) in economics. “These drinks firms are looking at how to make their product stand out, whether that’s bottle shape, the naming of the product or how they are promoting themselves. It’s a global marketplace for those alcoholic brands.

“As a trademark attorney I would certainly expect them after two or three years of good reputation in the UK to be expanding into overseas territories and seeking protection to go along with that. Of course, start-up companies will have to balance that against the outlay for the protection and how strong your market might be in those countries.”

While the trade mark and IP profession has seen technology transform the way it goes about its work, Coates stresses the need for the human touch. “A lot of what a trademark attorney does is quite subjective,” she says. “Some of the computer searches can bring up stuff that is not relevant. You can’t use AI in quite the same way as in other sectors.”

30-Second CV

Job title: Chartered trade mark attorney

Born: Kinross

Education: University of Glasgow

First job: Saturday morning in my father’s shop

What car do you drive: Honda

Favourite mode of ­transport: My legs

Music: The playlist ­constantly changes

Favourite place: Home

Reading material: ­Thrillers or biographies (occasionally case law)

Book or Kindle: Kindle – a world of books to delve into

Can’t live without: Coffee in the morning

What makes you angry: Cruelty to children or animals

Best thing about your job: It’s different every day

Best bit of advice you have received in business: “Remember the big picture” – when I started training to become a qualified trademark attorney, from my then boss. As an attorney, you focus on the details, but you need to be aware of what those details are actually seeking to achieve in the commercial world.

Eleanor Coates is one of the speakers at The Scotsman’s food and drink conference on 14 November: