15 October 2008

When brand value turns to zero.

Amidst the escalating world economic turmoil the world's most well known and successful financial brands have stared down possible dissolution, others simply disappeared and most lost substantial economic and subsequent brand value. Is brand value relevant?

On the back of the disappearance of Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers, the takeovers of Wachovia, Washington Mutual, Northern Rock, Bradford and Bingley there is plenty of evidence there is evidence to suggest that the concept of brand value is being questioned.

Take Lehman Brothers as an example. In 2007 it had an estimated brand value of $8 billion, by September 2008 it had lost close to 78% of its brand value and when it filed for bankruptcy it still had $639 billion in assets under management before it was broken up and sold to UK bank Barclays (who basically bought the building for under $1b!) and Japanese brokerage firm Nomura but little brand value.

While conventional thinking has it that in either a merger or acquisition, brands and their equity come with the entity being bought, the Lehman Brothers example serves to challenge this thinking.

As financial markets have dried up, banks and other financial institutions have had no reference point against which to set the value of their investment assets. Between January and September this year brand valuation agency Brand Finance estimated the brand value of the 100 most valuable globally branded businesses had decreased by 4.2 percent, a drop of US$67 billion. Brand value is going to continue to decline as prices fall and markets become mere ciphers of liquidity.

While brands continue to remain quantifiable assets, their contribution to the equation of a takeover or merger price is now more difficult to extract.

In a takeover or merger brands are among the costs CFOs and their audit firms identify that contribute to any premium paid which exceeds net asset value (NAV) or, what used to be known as goodwill. Under current international accounting standards as much as possible of that margin must be explained by listing, along with their values, such intangibles as can be identified and which meet the standards' criteria. Residual amounts (brand value) that cannot be reliably explained remain goodwill. As such brand value is dumped into a bucket along with a whole lot of other assets that have been subsequently dramatically reduced. And as was the case with Lehmann's, their New York headquarters was worth more than their brand.

So what happens now?

Brands are assets in that they conform to accounting standards. As these standards develop and are refined, it's likely that in the future all brands will need be properly valued on the balance sheet. As far as consumer contribution and preference go towards a contribution to brand value, this is an issue as I pointed out in DIFFUSIONblog 22/9/08 The battle of the brands 2 that is still to be dealt with and that the value and return on marketing investment is required to provide for. And as consumer sentiment and therefore confidence in brands waxes and wanes, we are likely to see continued fluctuations in brand value that take no account of the balance sheet. It is clear that Alan Greenspan's idea of irrational exhubrance cannot exist in a whirpool.

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