Given the continued strength of the US alcoholic beverage market, the alcohol industry presents numerous opportunities for acquisitions, investments and other strategic transactions from a wide variety of players. These range from small craft start-ups to larger strategic buyers, as well as investors of all shapes and sizes. In such a highly regulated industry, however, it is crucial for potential buyers and sellers to understand the complexities of the rules and regulations in order to negotiate and structure such transactions effectively.
In this blog post, the first in a series, we examine one of the common industry pitfalls and the related overlooked issues founders face when growing their alcohol business and positioning the company for a possible future transaction: failure to protect formulas and processes.
It is common for founders to focus on growing revenue during their start-up phase without dedicating time and resources to protecting their trade secrets. Trade secrets are a vital part of any company—they are the information you would not want your competitors to know, such as customer or supplier information, prices, marketing strategies, formulas/processes/recipes and any other confidential business information.
Whether you are an established brand or entering the alcohol beverage space, the ingredients that you choose for the base of your alcohol beverage can have a large impact on many aspects of your business. First, brands should consider working with flavor houses or ingredient sourcing companies who regularly collaborate with alcohol beverage companies. These companies will be the most familiar with the legal prohibitions, restrictions and limitations on certain ingredients added to alcohol beverages. Additionally, working closely with flavor houses will ensure that the ingredients used support the product’s label and advertising material claims. For example, you must avoid making any implied statements that the product contains certain ingredients when it does not. So, if a label or advertising material says, “Made with real fruit juice,” consider directly adding fruit juice or fruit concentrate as an ingredient.
Second, brands should provide any supporting documentation from the flavor houses/sourcing companies to their co-manufacturers (Flavor Ingredient Data Sheets, ingredient specification sheets, and Consejo Regulador del Tequila approvals for Tequila, for example). This will ensure that the product is being produced in accordance with the formula on file with, and approved by, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Experienced alcohol counsel can review your formulas and identify any potential issues to help minimize the risk of a TTB formula rejection.
Formulas and manufacturing processes are not subject to trademark, patent or copyright protection, so how can you protect them from your competitors? Trade secrets are the only practical mechanism. The Uniform Trade Secrets Act defines “trade secret” as “information, including a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique, or process that:
- Derives independent economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to, and not being readily ascertainable by proper means by other persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use, and
- Is the subject of efforts [...]