INSIDE.com

Disney, McDonald's...Napster: What's a Brand Worth, Anyway?
Take away the free music from the site and what's left -- software, a famous name and a cool logo. That could still be worth millions.
by Warren Cohen

Friday, July 14 04:33 P.M.

Imagine what would happen to Budweiser if the supply of hops suddenly dried up. Or a clause in founder Adolphus Busch's will prevented any further production of beer after the Year 2000. Could the Wazzup guys keep it real by drinking Budweiser root beer? Would people laugh at the chortling frogs burping tributes to iced tea? Would Joe Sixpack have a similarly warm and fuzzy feeling for a quart of Budweiser milk?

Such a nightmare -- of having your bread-and-butter (beer-and-pretzel?) business yanked out from under you -- is an all-too-real fear for Napster, which could soon see its file-sharing music service disappear if the record industry has its way. Napster faces two legal judgment days. The first comes on July 26 when a federal judge rules on the Recording Industry Association of America's request for a preliminary injunction to shut down the service. If Napster survives this first test, it could still be closed for copyright abuse when the full case is heard later this year.

Of course, Napster could always reach a settlement with the recording industry to license major-label content legally. But judging by MP3.com's recently stalled effort to reach an accord with the major labels and publishers, there is the very real possibility that Napster may need to alter its business model.

What's the value of a company without its main product? Currently, Napster values itself at $62.6 million. That figure is based on the 31.3 million shares of privately held stock with a per-share value of $2.00. But in court filings, CEO Hank Barry said that if Napster were compared to Internet companies with similar numbers of users, the market value would be somewhere between $1.5 billion and $2 billion. Of course, if Napster prevails, such a valuation could be quite accurate.

These figures are based upon Napster's status as the most compelling Internet story of the past six months. The company, which has 39 employees, boasts immense traffic, estimated now at about 20 million users. Napster also has other obvious assets, first and foremost its hugely popular and easy-to-use software.

But without file swapping, Napster's value may be closer to a version of Tetris than $2 billion. If forced to find a new business, a reimagined Napster would have to surmount its current flaws: no revenues, no long-term track record and a growing number of competitors eager to steal its customer base.

To better gauge Napster's actual worth, Inside talked to a host of branding and marketing experts. The following guide attempts to determine the value of the company's pieces if it were forced to find some other service to offer or product to sell in order to survive.


NAPSTER'S CUSTOMER BASE
Napster's estimated 20 million fanatics may be its crown asset. According to calculations by Phil Leigh, a financial analyst with the Raymond James & Associates investment brokerage firm, if Napster's rapid growth from January to May continued at the same pace through the rest of the year, the company would have as many unique users as Yahoo.

On the Net, most companies are willing to spend big for traffic. That's because of the fierce battle to establish a destination site within a sea of competitors. The premium portals, Yahoo and America Online, are able to charge commanding rates for banner ads. Yahoo has a market capitalization of $67 billion, and AOL, with 23 million subscribers, has a market cap of $135 billion. ''If you look at metrics like users, page views and time spent on the site, that's the ultimate way to value a company,'' says Milton Olin, Napster's chief operating officer. ''We are a company with traction.''

There's one good example of a company valued solely for its turnstiles. Last year, Blue Mountain Arts, the free greeting card site run by ex-hippies, had virtually no revenues, just like Napster. But it did have a million visitors a day. The site sold to Excite for roughly $780 million. Napster's users have great value, no matter what the new service may be. ''They have a huge installed base which could be ported to new products and services if the file-sharing component is killed,'' says David Hyman, president of the CDDB, a compact disc database company.

On the downside, marketers in a digital world prize knowledge about the quality of their visitors, not just the quantity. Whereas Amazon greets visitors to its site by name and uses a customer's past purchases to suggest new books, entering Napster has all the customer intimacy of buying a street-corner hot dog. Users log on anonymously with fake handles and begin trading with each other, not Napster. The company doesn't track the most frequently traded songs or even which artists' songs appear on the site. And unlike many e-commerce companies that send their users friendly e-mail offers, the only time users hear from Napster is when they're being tossed off the service.

Of course, Napster has never collected such data because its architecture is designed to connect users to one another and avoid a central authority. This is rooted in legal concerns that forced the company to take a hands-off policy toward its customers: Napster initially hoped to position itself as an Internet service provider to comply with the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act and avoid legal liability if it was used for piracy. By positioning itself as a neutral, passive exchange, it hoped any questions of liability would revert to the user. If Napster didn't collect any data or information on its users, it wouldn't have to monitor and boot them off its system.

So while Napster does possess the e-mail addresses of its 20 million users, their worth may not amount to much. ''Anyone can sell a mailing list,'' says Jann Sabin, president of CreativeDepartmentUSA, a branding specialist. ''If it had great relationships to sell of people who had been doing business with the company for years, that would be different.''

And on the Net, traffic can disappear as fast as it is built. A case in point, the sorry tale of PointCast, which in 1996 had a then-impressive 8 million downloads and 1.5 million active users. Hyped on various magazine covers, PointCast promised to revolutionize the Internet with ''push'' technology. News Corp. offered $450 million for the site, but the founders declined. But as corporate networks sped up, making surfing easier, people didn't need media pushed to their desktop anymore and the bulky program disappeared. Last year, the remains of the company were sold for $7 million, and it was quietly shut down earlier this year.


NAPSTER'S BRAND
Closely linked to Napster's impressive customer base is the elusive, fuzzy feeling that marketers like to call ''brand.'' A brand has to do with the emotional relationships forged between a company and its customers. It's a company's big-picture raison d'etre, the ephemeral qualities it claims to sell. FedEx, for instance, doesn't just deliver packages but peace of mind. The Discovery Channel is not just another cable option but a pathway to mystery and adventure. ''Leading technologies can flame out, but successful brands are about personalities and trust,'' says Leeann Lavin, senior vice president at Wilson McHenry Company, a strategic communications firm.

World-class companies spend most of their time trying to get their company logos and advertising messages to reinforce their brand to customers. Such an intangible asset can represent very serious money. Businessmen estimate the financial worth of brands in mergers and acquisition talks, and markets trade stocks based on brand strength. The New York-based firm Interbrand has the most-tracked annual study of valuable brands. For companies like BMW, McDonald's and Walt Disney, brand value represents more than 60 percent of their market capitalization, ranging from $11 billion (BMW) to $32 billion (Disney). That means that the company name and its reputation would sell for more on the open market than the value of these companies' factories, equipment, technology, theme parks and special sauce recipes combined.

Some marketing gurus say that Napster has not yet become a brand. ''Napster is only a product or service, a flavor of the month,'' says Interbrand's Grace. ''A brand secures future earnings through loyalty, but Napster hasn't been around long enough to secure sustainable consumer relationships.'' Adds CreativeDepartment's Sabin, ''It's not yet something people pay a little extra for, or drive a little further for -- it's just a channel.'' Olin agrees that branding has been the least of the company's concerns so far. ''We've spent no time yet with what one should do with a brand,'' he says. ''But Napster has grown on its own initiative with simple connections between music fans and each other. We didn't need to hire a company to tell us what color our logo should be.''

Marketers say that in some way, not having a strong identity could benefit the company if it needed to reposition. Napster could still sell or transfer music designated to be shared, or offer a file-sharing service in, say, medical or legal documents. The RIAA helpfully suggests that Napster ''could use its system for authorized filing sharing (including the 'Human Genome Project') if it were enjoined from infringing copyrights.'' Even more broadly, Napster could be a site for new software, or an antiestablishment gathering area. ''They really need to figure out why this phenomenon has taken off,'' says Mike Bainbridge, a general manager at the Sterling Group, an international brand consultancy. (Inside.com is also a client of Sterling.) ''Why them and not anybody else? What archetype have they have tapped into? If they can figure that out, they can create new opportunities for Napster.''

The good news is that many brands have rejiggered their identity to hold on to customers. One example is Harley-Davidson, once a roadster for street toughs and now an expensive two-wheel sports car for daydreaming Boomers. ''There is no connection with the old Harley image anymore,'' says William Keep, associate professor of marketing at Quinnipiac University. ''It shows brands can adapt and change and move with the market.''

To this end, Napster's vague brand name (deriving from 19-year-old founder Shawn Fanning's nickname after a sloppy hairdo) may also allow it to easily transition to another type of business. ''If you were the Radio Corporation of America, it would be hard to define a new business,'' says James Bell, a senior partner at corporate image consultant Lippincott & Margulies. ''But Napster doesn't really mean anything. It can be taken in any direction to define a new business.''

While Napster's outlaw status has cultural currency today, it would likely become less important in the future. ''If they were to lose the legal argument, they may be seen as a failure, something that didn't work out,'' warns Ron Dayan, CEO of Complete-e Strategies, an Internet consulting firm. Adds Martin Williams, president and CEO of U.S. Marketer.com, a marketing resource Web site, ''Drexel Burnham was a brand name not worth much to anyone else,'' referring to Michael Milken's law-flouting junk bond firm.


NAPSTER'S URL
Related to both the Napster brand and the potential customer traffic is the actual URL of Napster.com. Like prime beachfront real estate, an easy-to-remember, easy-to-find URL address is considered vital to a company's fortunes. The record price fetched in a domain-name sale is $7.5 million for business.com.

Inside asked users at Afternic, a site that has users buy and appraise domain names, to evaluate www.napster.com's potential worth. As of Thursday, 54 people weighed in, coming up with a median value of $500,000. Ari Karp, a Boston-based Web developer, appraises domain names as a side business. He values the domain name itself at $2 million. ''It's almost a household name,'' he says. ''It's catchy, short and easy to remember.''


NAPSTER'S TECHNOLOGY
The genius in Napster's software is in its concept, not its code. Linking users to one another was a brilliant way to solve the problem of how to locate content on the Web, but it wasn't a ''eureka!'' technical achievement. After all, company founder Fanning wrote the basic Napster program with the aid of some books he got at the local bookshop.

Other companies are racing to emulate Napster's basic peer-to-peer computing software, proving that writing such a program isn't like devising a new database manager. But even if Napster's basic architecture was desirable, brand strength can still draw more than fancy technology. Boo.com, the debilitatingly cool $125 million fashion site that went bankrupt earlier this year, spent millions developing a proprietary system in which an e-commerce company could set up a single online ordering network across different languages and currencies. Yet Boo's software sold for only $378,000 at liquidation. Benjamin Narasin, chief executive of Fashionmall.com, says his company paid significantly more for the rights to Boo.com's brand name.


NAPSTER'S PERSONNEL
Napster has 39 people across a wide spectrum of functions: operations, engineers, marketing and business development. While it's more than likely that many of the former Napster team would leave after a sale, marketers say that the new owners may need to retain one key person: Shawn Fanning. ''Fanning embodies a lot of what Napster is,'' says Alicia Stack, a senior vice president at Addison Whitney, a branding consultancy. ''The company's identity is tied up in him.''

And in the end, as with all corporate assets, Napster's value remains less tied to its own billion-dollar claim of megahugeness and more to how the marketplace views the company. As Sabin notes, ''I can say that my house is worth a million-and-a-half dollars. And if some fool is crazy enough to pay for it, it is.''