Many of us in Marcellus grew up with a well-thumbed copy of Guiness Book of World Records (now called ‘Guiness World Records’) in our school bag because it was useful for adjudicating disputes on the school bus on important questions like ‘Who has longest nails in the world and how long are said person’s nails?’ (Answer: Diana Armstrong, 1306.58 cm). Hence we were delighted to come across this long read in The Guardian. Whilst at a practical level, Imogen West-Kinghts article is about ‘everything you wanted to know about Guiness World Records but were afraid to ask’, at a deeper level you should read this article to understand how you can build a large & enduring branded business out of literally nothing.

So what are the origins of this 70 year old London headquartered business? Ms West-Knights informs us that Guiness, the beer company played a key role: “It began with an argument in 1951. The managing director of Guinness, Sir Hugh Beaver, was on a hunting trip in Wexford, and his party couldn’t agree which game bird was fastest. This dispute seems to have stuck with Beaver. Thinking back on the incident three years later, it occurred to him that these kinds of arguments must happen all the time and there would surely be an appetite for argument-settling answers in the form of a compendious book that catalogued world records, as well as the extremes of the natural world. This volume could be distributed to pubs that sold Guinness. It could also be sold in shops, and provide another revenue stream for the brewery.

For help, Beaver turned to identical twins named Ross and Norris McWhirter who ran a fact and figure-provision service for the newspapers of Fleet Street. The first edition, published in 1955, was shaped by the brothers’ eclectic personal taste and sense of propriety. Norris hated popular music because he thought it was “ephemeral”, and so limited the number of records in this field. No records to do with sex were included, because the twins thought, as Norris put it in 1954, “You can get those records out of medical literature, but ours is the kind of book maiden aunts give to their nieces.” Instead, readers could discover the highest lifetime milk yield of a cow (325,130lb, held by a British friesian called Manningford Faith Jan Graceful). The foreword to the first edition read: “Guinness, in producing this book, hopes that it may assist in resolving many such disputes, and may, we hope, turn heat into light.””

Over the past decades the obsession to get into the Guiness World Records has preoccupied men & women of all ages across all continents. Ms West-Knights identifies four types of world records: “Type one: records broken without being record-breaking attempts. The most words in a hit single (Rap God by Eminem at 1,560); the most venomous viper (the saw-scaled viper Echis carinatus). Type two: sporting achievements. The fastest boxing knockout (4 seconds), the longest tennis match (11hr 5min) and so on. Type three are the ones that stick in our memories from childhood: records that seem to exist purely in order to be records. The largest toast mosaic (189.59 sq metres), fastest time to roll an orange one mile with your nose (22min 41sec), and perhaps the most iconic of all, longest fingernails (42ft 10.4in). And then there is the fourth kind: marketing stunts. In 2020, for instance, Bush’s Beans set the record for largest layered dip (493kg and 70 layers) to “celebrate the Super Bowl”. Two years earlier, Moontower Pizza Bar in Burleson, Texas created the world’s largest commercially available pizza at 1.98 sq metres, retailing at $299.95, plus tax.

For some observers, the existence of this last category is a sad reflection of how far the company has fallen. “They’ve lost the intellectual integrity that the twins had,” Norris’s son, Alasdair McWhirter, told me. “For them, it was a knowledge-based quest, and they had tremendous enthusiasm for that. Whereas now everything is done to make money.””

Even this accusation that Guiness World Records has sold its soul for money arose from one of the more unusual business partnerships of our time. Ms West-Knights writes: “GWR has faced other criticisms since the introduction of the consultancy services. The most serious of these concern Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who ruled Turkmenistan between 2007 and 2022. (He has since been replaced as president by his son, Serdar.) Berdymukhamedov was a dictator whose regime carried out arbitrary detentions, controlled the media, persecuted homosexuals and women seeking abortions, and discriminated against ethnic and religious minorities. He was also a keen GWR fan. Between 2011 and 2018, his government and bodies linked to the government made a total of seven applications to GWR for record attempts. According to his wishes, the city of Ashgabat sought and broke the record for “the highest density of buildings with white marble cladding”. A tower he ordered to be built won the record for the largest architectural image of a star. (GWR told me that it could not reveal how much money Turkmenistan had paid for GWR Consultancy services.)

When I brought up GWR’s work with Berdymukhamedov, Glenday admitted that this had been a misstep, because of Turkmenistan’s human rights record. The company is now more careful about their association with anything where they think there’s “some political angle”, he said. “If you’re a school, and you come to us from Turkmenistan and want to do a record attempt, that’s totally fine. But if it’s organised by the minister of culture, then you start to think well, wait a minute. Why?””

As we grow old and deal with ethical issues in our world of investing, it is strangely comforting to see that the brands which were our window to the modern world are also wrestling with the same dilemmas.

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Note: the above material is neither investment research, nor financial advice. Marcellus does not seek payment for or business from this publication in any shape or form. Marcellus Investment Managers is regulated by the Securities and Exchange Board of India as a provider of Portfolio Management Services. Marcellus Investment Managers is also regulated in the United States as an Investment Advisor.

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