The problem of intangible assets

In 1988 Nestle bought Rowntree, the UK confectionary company famous for its fruit gums and jelly babies. It paid £2.5 bn which was three times more than the market thought it was worth. Nestle then had a big problem with its accounts.

Traditionally, accountants would only look at the value of tangible assets; physical things like equipment and buildings. The difference between what you paid for a company and its tangible assets was called goodwill and had to be written off. Rowntree at the time had tangible assets of £0.5 bn. So according to the accounting principles of the day, Nestle had just blown £2 bn on intangible assets that had no true recognised value. It faced having to declare a huge loss.

Nestle argued this was nonsense. The intangible assets were not worthless, in fact they were very valuable. They were consumer brand names that had cost many millions in advertising investment to build up. Moreover, they were more valuable than physical equipment. Machinery wears out and breaks down in the end; it depreciates in value. Brand names don’t. They last for ever.
This debate about accounting policies ran on for over a decade. The proper accounting treatment of brands was not settled until 1999 in the UK and 2002 in the US. Nestle’s view won out. Brands do have financial value and don’t depreciate.

Brand value is the catataxic gap

What is a Brand? It is essentially a collection of feelings and emotions in the minds of the populace. Brand valuation is an example of catataxis. It is the difference between the value of all the physical assets and the value of the company as a whole: the catataxic gap. A brand is a great example of the whole being worth more than the sum of its parts. Beauty is in the eye if the beholder. Brand is in the mind of the consumer. So accountants are now valuing things one level higher than the physical. They are pricing emotions in your head. How you as a consumer feel now has a recognised monetary value.

The ultimate expression of a brand is a pop group. Rowntree’s jelly babies is a physical product with some warm consumer associations. But a pop group is not a physical product at all. Its pure concept. So a band is the ultimate brand. It can exist without its physical parts. Forget jelly babies, look at the Sugarbabes.

Sugarbabes and the Ship of Theseus

The Sugarbabes formed in 1998 with three members: Siobhan Donaghy, Mutya Buena and Keisha Buchanan. One by one, all three of the original members  left the group. The line up in 2010 was Heidi Range, Amelle Berrabah and Jane Ewen. The constituent parts were completely different from ten years previously, but the band was still the same. It  still sold out big arenas so clearly the fans didn’t mind. The band is not its members. It exists at a higher level.

This is sometimes called the ‘Ship of Theseus‘ problem, first presented  by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Theseus’ ship is so old that gradually every plank of it is replaced by a new plank. Once the last piece of the old ship has been replaced, is it still correct to call it the Ship of Theseus? The example of the Sugarbabes  and Nestle’s intangible assets would prompt a yes.

Better together…

Better known bands that the Sugarbabes also demonstrate that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. The Rolling Stones as a band (and brand) is still as strong as ever. But the solo albums by the members are embarrassing flops. Mick Jagger released a solo album in 2001 which sold only 954 copies on its first day. A few years later the Stones “Bigger Bang” tour played to 3.8 million people and grossed $500m. So when Mick writes songs and releases them under the Stones banner it is completely different from releasing them on his own.

Consider Pink Floyd. This band lost its creative mainspring not one but twice. Syd Barrett left in 1968 and Roger Waters left in a very acrimonious breakup in 1985. Roger Waters wrote almost all of the The Wall which has sold 20m copies worldwide. His first solo album was “The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking”. This is very similar to The Wall, even down to the artwork by Gerald Scarfe. It was written at the same time as The Wall and at one time could have been recorded by the band. It was an embarrassing flop.

A big dispute followed about the ownership of the Pink Floyd name. Roger Waters lost out and the remaining three band members kept ownership of it. They went on to  release two successful albums and had three sellout tours under the Pink Floyd name. Roger Waters had the humiliation of playing the same songs – songs that he wrote – in tiny auditoriums right next door to Pink Floyd rocking stadium arenas.

Catataxis : sum of the parts

This is one aspect of catataxis. In the above examples,  the whole is different from the sum of the parts. This can be summarised under the phrase  ‘more of the same is different’ which is one of the four axioms of catataxis


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