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February 2, 2012
Should American Brands Wrap Themselves in the Flag?
 
Despite our wishes, “Made In America” doesn’t necessarily make the best selling point.

I once had a client that manufactured hand tools, which they proudly made in America. So when I had to write a holiday-time radio script for the brand, I slipped in a line about how buying these tools would also help their based-in-Pennsylvania workers have a happy holiday season.
 
My Creative Director questioned it, but I knew the client would appreciate the nod, even if it sounded a bit jingoistic. Which they did, and the line stayed in.
 
But in a global economy these days, how far will “Made in America” get a brand? What if more American brands embraced their heritage in their marketing? Could American manufacturers use it for a competitive advantage in our mindsets, if not our wallets?
 
It’s a complicated issue, but one that’s made the news quite a bit recently.
 
In the past few weeks, we’ve seen Apple take a few lumps in the press because of the working conditions at the Chinese factories that make their products. There have also been a few rumblings about GM’s decision to award its billion-dollar media buying business to a European-owned agency, a perceived slight after the automaker received U.S. government financing to help it bounce back from bankruptcy.
 
As in so many things American, our sentiments are riddled with contradictions. Many Americans say they prefer to buy American products but don’t put their wallets where their mouths are.
 
Let’s take Apple. It’s a selective outrage, a cognitive dissonance that allows people to love their Apple devices while seemingly shuddering at how those products get made. (Yes, I include myself in this). How Apple makes its products is no different that most other electronics manufacturers, but they’re the brand with the most intangible “love.” And in marketing, just as in life, we’re always disappointed the most in the ones we love so much.
 
Then there are brands that try to cling to their all-American image while their business practices don’t match. Levi’s tried to co-opt the American hard-working spirit a couple of years ago by highlighting people in a hardscrabble Pennsylvania town where the residents did all sorts of things to survive — except large-scale manufacturing, which left the town long ago. But when you don’t make your own products here, it’s a little hard to sound credible about American work ethics. (Actually, you can buy made-in-America Levi’s from their website. For $200 a pair).
 
Frankly, most of the larger clients I’ve worked on focus their growth on other countries, not America. So they don’t feel as much of a need to make things here or tout them as such.
 
It’s become quite clear that few brands find it attractive, or even practical, to tout an American heritage. Still, American pride is a stubborn thing. Many people cheered the idea of Chrysler being “Imported from Detroit,” yet don't think twice about purchasing foreign-made cars.
 
In 2012, seeking out American brands is the exception for most people, not the norm. Much of what we buy isn’t made here anymore, and many of the raw goods aren’t produced here. So we’ve become accustomed seeing less American-made merchandise in stores. We take it for granted that our clothes, electronics, appliances, and tchotchkes generally aren’t made here. If they are made here, then they’re often premium products made in smaller quantities. Or they’re commodities like food.
 
Nor does being American rank as being part of a brand’s corporate social responsibility or sustainability efforts. Sourcing raw goods or manufacturing finished products overseas is perfectly acceptable for a company to do and still be viewed as a good corporate citizen.
 
I suppose the bottom line to all this is, well, the bottom line: If Apple decided to bring its manufacturing back to America, would you support that even if they jacked up the price of an iPhone by $100 or so? What about your clothes, or all the all other bric-a-brac you’ve got in your house?
 
Remember, we’re living in a price-sensitive economy. When brands know they can make their goods cheaper overseas to stay competitive, they’ll do it. We accept that. And on top of the lower prices, we’re always looking for a sale, a Groupon, or some other discount. All the more reason to manufacture stuff on the cheap.
 
It’ll take more than a few articles “liked” on Facebook or retweeted to change Apple’s mind, consumer buying habits, or the dynamics of global manufacturing. Consumers would need to vote, en masse, with their pocketbooks to pay the additional costs of making goods in America. Which is why it won’t likely occur.
 
At some point, though, it’s entirely possible we’ll see “Made in America” make a comeback. But we as consumers and citizens have to believe in its merits before marketing and advertising people embrace it strategically. And we have to ascribe to it an emotional value in addition to a monetary one.
 
Now those kind of judgments, well, those we can only make here in America. 

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 


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