You need only look at the success of Chinese-made merchandise to see that “Made in USA” does not carry the cache it once did. Although calls to “Buy American” arise during any economic downturn, American consumers vote otherwise, every time they hop into their Japanese-made car, fill it up with gasoline refined from foreign oil and motor over to Wal-Mart for the sale on patio furniture that was made in Mexico.
But it’s not so much a decline in the quality of American-made goods, as it is an improvement by other countries in their ability to build acceptable quality products. For all the criticism of the U.S. auto industry, the fact is their cars are more reliable, more efficient, safer and far more durable than their predecessors. The problem is that imports are even more so. Consumers are the winners, but it shows how brand attributes can evolve over time and lose their meaning.
The auto industry is a prime example of how globalized brands have become. Most Honda Accords are built in Kentucky. The Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey mini-vans are both ranked ahead of the Ford Explorer for American-made content by Cars.com. The Dodge Caravan is mostly assembled in Canada, while the Chevy Aveo is made in South Korea.
If you’re committed to buying the most American car or truck you can find, be ready to do some homework, because it isn’t easy once you take into account the sources of all the components, it’s place of assembly and the parent company headquarters. (If you’re pressed for time, Cars.com ranks the Ford F-150 pickup as the most American vehicle.)
At one time, a notation of “Made in Japan” on a product was seen as a warning signal that the materials and workmanship were suspect. In the 1960’s, less than 20 years removed from being our archenemy, there was still a vibrant patriotic component to “Made in USA” versus “Made in Japan.” But in the next two decades, Japan steadily rose to the top of the heap in perceptions of product quality, led by brands like Sony, Panasonic, Toyota, and Honda.
By contrast, China has recently drawn shiploads of attention for several questionable, even dangerous manufacturing practices, from lead paint in children’s products, to melamine in pet food. Chinese officials have quickly spun these incidents as aberrations, but a few more highly publicized events could put some long-lasting tarnish on their country as a source of quality goods. American consumers can accept products made in sweatshop conditions with environmental standards that make the EPA light-headed, but threaten to poison our kids or our pets and we’ll stop buying.
But while the globalization of our economy has changed how we view country of origin as a brand attribute, regional connections with products can often be a successful branding device. There is probably no product that has been more successful at using a hitherto unknown small town as a brand vehicle than Jack Daniels whiskey has been in using Lynchburg, Tennessee as an anchor. Few of their customers have ever been to this bucolic hamlet (pop. 361), but we have no trouble imaging that a backwoods town in Tennessee could contain the expertise to cook up a pretty good “sour mash” whiskey.
Coors Brewing, Omaha Steaks, Florida citrus, California almonds, Washington apples and many other food and beverage companies or co-ops have used regional brand attributes to build their brand promise. Perhaps Turkey Hill, the local ice cream and drink brand, sums it up best when they say, “Where we make it is why it’s good.” All of the above-mentioned brands successfully borrow the perceived equity of the places they come from and attach it to their own brand perceptions. It’s a strategy that can yield great dividends, especially if the concept can be understood and appreciated as it expands geographically.
None of this is meant to imply that a brand that is seen as “American-made” has lost all meaning. Harley Davidson, Marlboro, and Budweiser are all examples of brands that have kept their country of origin as part of their brand experience. But as more American brands outsource their manufacturing, and more foreign brands in-source in our country, the lines that were once so clear and aligned with patriotic emotions have become blurred. The world may not be ready for a car made in Vietnam (or China, for that matter), but who would have thought that South Korea would have become an automobile brand powerhouse in just a few years? Made in America is certainly not a negative, but as the core of a brand concept it has less power every year.