Go China go! At the current rate, China will surpass the United States as the world’s biggest economy by the year 2016, according to the International Monetary Fund. Each day, U.S. consumers cheer on China by blindly buying Chinese-made products, giving the communist country’s surge to the top of the global economic ladder their implicit endorsement. As a business owner who strives to champion American-made products, I find this a troubling statistic and economic possibility.
Too many Americans pay too little attention to where the products they buy are made, or they couldn’t care less. That’s a big problem. But it’s far too easy to point the sole finger at them. A deeper question is whether U.S. manufacturers and retailers are giving consumers domestically manufactured products that are worthy of real consideration alongside appealingly low-cost, and equally low-quality, Asian-made goods. From where I sit, U.S. manufacturers and retailers have sacrificed what I see as the U.S. “brand promise” on the altar of every-increasing profit margins.
The basic tenets of a brand promise are as follows: deliver a specific product, of a specific quality, at a specific price. “Made in the U.S.A.” is our patriotic brand promise. For some, it’s a tired, economically isolationist slogan. But it used to really mean something.
At one time, products made in the U.S. were globally respected for their high quality, their reflection of American innovation and our culture. U.S. manufacturers did a good job of keeping this brand promise, and U.S consumers valued it. If you look around, you can still find evidence.
Classic design and 30 years of service
I have a Hamilton Beach blender that was made in the early ’60s. It’s a classic American industrial design. As far as blenders go, it’s elegant, and nearly bulletproof. I’ve used it every day for 30 years. It’s a fine example of what “Made in the U.S.A.” used to mean.
Apparently, good design and build quality — and even the notion of value itself — are old-fashioned concepts. Rather than spend a bit more for a quality product, today’s American consumer is satisfied with the illusion of quality, opting for cheap, disposable products that make a brief stopover in their homes on their way to landfills. Think I’m exaggerating? Examine your own closets. I’ll wager that most of your clothes, personal items, tools, appliances, toys and other items have labels attached to them that say “Go Team (Made In) China!” somewhere near the iconic American brand logos emblazoned on most of what we buy. From the little red wagons made by Radio Flyer Inc., to Black & Decker tools, the products of so many famous U.S. brands are now cranked out in Asian factories. Premium brands fronting cheaply made goods. So much for brand promise.
Yet few consumers take companies that break that promise to task. My son bought a blender last year. Plastic, shiny and cheap. Within months, it stopped working. It’s not worth fixing; you can’t find parts. We did our best to find an American-made blender. Ask most retailers for American-made products and you often get confused silence — silence that says “Go Team China!” We found another vintage Hamilton-Beach blender at the local Goodwill store and, yes, you can still find parts for them.
We still have some islands in our economy dedicated to preserving the “Made in the USA” brand promise. In Minnesota alone, companies like Duluth Pack and P.M. Bedroom Gallery stake their reputation on producing and selling domestically made goods. While they also sell Asia-imported products, Menards often promotes U.S.-made merchandise. Internet sites like Keep America intend to direct consumers to only U.S.-manufactured products. Keep America states on its website that, on average, each American spends $700 on Christmas gifts and if only $64 of that were spent on American-made products, we could save over 200,000 American jobs each year.
Guitar of Jagger‘s boyhood dreams
When I started my own business selling guitars nearly 25 years ago, I made the commitment to sell, whenever possible, only American-made merchandise based on my belief that products designed and built here, from any generation, are intrinsically more valuable. Nearly every day, customers from around the globe — collectors, working musicians, even rock stars — tell me nothing compares with American-made instruments. A few years ago, I sold British rock star Mick Jagger a guitar he dreamed of as a kid. It was originally sold by Sears for $55 in the early ’60s. He was visibly thrilled to get the American-made student guitar of his boyhood dreams and took it onstage the next day at Xcel Energy Center. He and countless other professional musicians still understand what “Made in the U.S.A.” is supposed to mean. For artists like him, quality and Americana are inseparable.
I’ll concede that “Made Elsewhere” is here to stay. But it’s time to reclaim the American brand promise. Let’s other countries take the low end of the market. U.S. brands once again need to be synonymous with high quality and the made-on-U.S.-soil vibe that, not long ago, commanded the respect of consumers around the globe. U.S. retailers need to have faith in the concept that stocking higher-quality, longer-lasting, American-made products is worth the premium prices and better margins they should command.
Lastly, consumers need to really commit to “Made in the U.S.A.” or risk losing it forever. That means demanding quality and asking for American-made goods by name, holding manufacturers and retailers that don’t deliver them accountable, and being prepared to pay a little more to reward the ones that do.