About ten years ago, I ran across a piece of analysis I haven't seen since and can't seem to lay hands (or search-engine bots) on at the moment. It ran in CFO Magazine and -- according to a set of accounting calculations I don't claim to fully understand -- listed hundreds of major brands whose brand value had ascended or descended the most in the preceding years. I recall such brand icons from the '70s as Peugeot and Nikon as being near the top of the latter category (i.e., the bottom of the list one would want to be on).
What was striking -- at least to this non-accountant -- was how rapidly brand values can change and by how much (many billions of dollars, in some cases).
From the standpoint of the kind of work I do helping clients to think about future strategic imperatives under a wide range of possible scenarios, the implication was clear: even if it hurt in the short term, the value of preserving (or failing to preserve) the brand could be enormous. Take that into a financing event and the advantages (and disadvantages) multiply even more, creating (or precluding) a whole range of strategic options, and so on, and so on. Brands are some of the slipperiest and yet most important assets any firm has. (The same could be said for individuals, but that's a different post.)
All of it can seem tremendously academic to companies that don't deal with consumers directly -- and tremendously obvious to companies that do... which doesn't mean that all of the latter do it well.
Thus it was that this piece in today's WSJ caught my eye:
It all started about two years ago, when a ship carrying 4,703 shiny new Mazdas nearly sank in the Pacific. The freighter, the Cougar Ace, spent weeks bobbing on the high seas, listing at a severe 60-degree angle, before finally being righted.
The mishap created a dilemma: What to do with the cars? They had remained safely strapped down throughout the ordeal -- but no one knew for sure what damage, if any, might be caused by dangling cars at such a steep angle for so long. Might corrosive fluids seep into chambers where they don't belong? Was the Cougar Ace now full of lemons?
The Japanese car maker, controlled by Ford Motor Corp., easily could have found takers for the vehicles. Hundreds of people called about buying cheap Mazdas. Schools wanted them for auto-shop courses. Hollywood asked about using them for stunts.
Mazda turned everyone away. It worried about getting sued someday if, say, an air-bag failed to fire properly due to overexposure to salty sea air.
It also worried that scammers might find a way to spirit the cars abroad to sell as new. That happened to thousands of so-called "Katrina cars" salvaged from New Orleans' flooding three years ago. Those cars -- their electronics gone haywire and sand in the engines -- were given a paint job and unloaded in Latin America on unsuspecting buyers, damaging auto makers' reputations.
Mazda saw no easy way to guard against these outcomes. So it decided to destroy approximately $100 million worth of factory-new automobiles. "We couldn't run the risk of damaging the brand name that Mazda worked so hard over the years to develop," says Jeremy Barnes, the company's corporate-affairs director for North America.
It could be argued that a) $100M is fairly cheap to preserve (and, arguably enhance) a major brand name like Mazda (paltry in comparison with some product recalls, or lack-of-recalls that should have happened but didn't), b) it isn't even that much because both the cars and the demolition operations that Mazda had to invent and undertake were largely overed by insurance and c) it's a tremendous waste, even if it does make sense from a business perspective.