U.S. Manufacturers Need to Focus on How Things Get Made, Not Where

This week something historic happened in the world of advertising.  The biggest, baddest retailer on the block took off its gloves and went directly at a competitor.  Wal-Mart, which has made its name (if not based its entire economic model) almost exclusively on rock bottom pricing, did a comparative shopping thing against a fast-growing, highly regarded regional grocery chain named Harris Teeter.  Then, using customer testimonials, it trumpeted the fact that its prices were virtually 10% lower than Harris Teeter’s on many comparable products.

I call it historic because Wal-Mart had never mentioned a competitor before until this week.  But it was noteworthy because it was contrary to what amounts to a mountain of accepted wisdom.  In the world of politics, for example, experts always tell an incumbent to never mention an opponent by name because it legitimizes him. 

And the same holds true in advertising.  It has been a long-held belief that a market leader should never give weight to a competitor by referring to the company’s product or brand name.  Because by doing so might make it seem that #1 and #2 are much closer in market share than is actually the case.

But that’s not the point of this blog.  Instead of what Wal-Mart did this week, I’d rather focus on what Harris Teeter did in response.  And what they did was this:  nothing.

Instead of using the opportunity to use the national publicity to its benefit, it chose to bury its head in the sand and say literally, “No comment.”  Which is exactly what a representative told NPR this week after the network sought an interview with a Harris Tweeter executive about Wal-Mart’s mention of them.

I couldn’t believe it.  Rather than extolling the differences between the two shopping experiences and telling the world about the remarkable quality and the uniqueness of the kind of products Harris Teeter carries, not to mention the level of service they provide – which, if you’ve ever shopped a Harris Teeter, is considerable – the company froze.  It panicked.  It swallowed the bit.

Despite the brand attributes that have made Harris Teeter a darling in the retail grocery set – namely, store ambiance, unique selection, first-rate quality and the highest-level service – the company acted as though the whole world was utterly obsessed with price and held its hands up to its corporate ears, shook its heads, hummed, and acted like it hoped the whole thing would just go away.

Sound familiar? 

Because that’s exactly what U.S. manufacturers did for years while China kept on crowing about how cheap they could make things. 

Rather than counter-punching and coming back with the many things we did so much better than China – like building things that worked, creating things that lasted, and mass-producing things that were reliable and dependable — all while doing it in a way which didn’t risk peoples’ lives or destroy the environment – we ran for cover.  We acted as though we thought the whole world was totally fixated on price and that it didn’t value the many things we did far, far better than China – which, as we all realize now, was crazy.

And even now as I hear politicians and so-called experts continue to say that we need to promote “Made in America,” I say to myself these people are crazy.  Most consumers and buyers don’t care where something is made.  Most people want value.  And they want to know their money was spent well and spent wisely. 

What good is buying something for half price when it doesn’t work half the time? 

In this world there will always be something cheaper and something costing less out-of-pocket money up front.  And it’s a losing proposition for any supplier to chase a competitor to the bottom when it comes to pricing.  Just as it’s a losing proposition to expect wholesale buyers to worry about something as ultimately meaningless as geography when they’re trying to operate within the context of a global economy. 

Made in America?  Who cares?  Seriously, who the heck cares?

Most of my customers don’t care.  Yes, they wish there were more manufacturing jobs in this country.  But at the end of the day, my customers want value. They want dependability.  And they want economy.  They could care less where something is made, as long as they’re receiving a good value for the dollar.  And the same is true of retail consumers.

So rather having our politicians getting on their soapboxes and crowing about things being “Made in America,” while naively believing that by sticking a picture of the stars and bars on a package they will fundamentally change consumer behavior, I wish they’d wake up and smell the coffee.  I wish they’d start focusing on a point of distinction that truly matters to people.

And I wish too they’d adopt a message that has the power to fundamentally change how the world views American-made products. 

You can have “Made in America.” Give me a relevant slogan; one that hits people where they live; one that gets them off the topic of price and focuses them on what matters most to them.

Like I said, you can have “Made in America.”  Give me a slogan that means something.  Give me one that matters. 

Give me these two simple words: “Made Right.”

6 Comments to “U.S. Manufacturers Need to Focus on How Things Get Made, Not Where”

  1. grng 10 March 2012 at 10:38 am #

    First impression from Harris Teeter was likely of a no response to wal-mart’s obvious trolling. Harris Teeter and Wal-mart are clearly not competitors, as a result HT has no reason to respond as it is not of their concern. Poor analogy my friend.

    • Perry Sainati 10 March 2012 at 11:38 am #

      I beg to differ strongly. It was NPR. It was a retail grocery story. And it was a story about Wal-Mart directly attacking Harris Teeter’s prices vs. their own. It was a great opportunity for Harris Teeter to trump the things they did well, and they blew it.

      Wal-Mart was not trolling, my friend. They were taking dead aim.

  2. grng 10 March 2012 at 1:54 pm #

    Dead aim at a higher-end grocery store that isn’t a competitor. If you get the chance (if you haven’t been already) check out a Harris Teeter, you’ll see what I mean; it’s a completely different shopping experience in a completely different market category.

    I am embarrassed for Wal-Mart for making the strike, it shows desperation or a bluff to get themselves back in the news. I think Harris Teeter simply followed their marketing strategy by the no response.

    Those of us deep in the business are scratching our heads, really Wal-Mart?

    But my point is manufacturing is a nationwide topic, devoid of ‘political sides’. I hope, for the USAs sake, the trade deficit does not fall into the cesspool of non-action and political discussion.

    We owe it to our factory workers on the front line to keep them employed. This post appears not in line with that thinking, appears to assign politics, attack and discredit bringing manufacturing back to the USA.

    This, to me, is a very odd and radical stance, but please correct me if I read to far into it. Thanks for listening.

    • Perry Sainati 10 March 2012 at 2:18 pm #

      I’m a manufacturer, and I sell my the things my company makes worldwide. I don’t want to make the buying and selling of my products contingent on the fact that they’re the cheapest. I don’t want to focus on price, because as long as there’s a China around, I’ll lose.

      I want to people to buy my products because in their minds they provide the best value for the dollar. And you can’t talk about value without factoring in at some point quality.

      Yes, Harris Teeter is currently a different type of grocer than Wal-Mart. I know. I’ve shopped at both. And Harris Teeter, like say Wegmans, is able to provide both terrific quality and competitive prices. The difference is, their price is merely OK. But their quality and service (as well as their ambiance) are simply off the charts. They’re fabulous.

      And to not take advantage to say just that in the press was a truly missed opportunity for them. You always want to take advantage of a chance to differentiate yourself from the other options in your category, even the lower end ones, and HT failed to do that — and to a national audience no less (not to mention, given the fact it was NPR, one demographically right in their wheelhouse).

      When I find people talking about price, I try to get them to focus on value. That’s how I continue to grow my business and thats how I’ll be able to generate more American jobs.

      (Besides, in your industry while you may not consider Wal-Mart and Harris Teeter competitors, clearly Wal-Mart does. And given the company’s history of not wanting to waste money and for laying to waste its competition, the idea that they’re producing an ad which, for the first time in company history actually mentions another retailer by name, would at least make me want to wake up and consider that something larger just might be afoot.)

  3. Ralf 16 March 2012 at 1:38 am #

    I think there is a reason why price is the major focus for many people. It’s the simplest thing to compare. If you want to compare value, it gets much more complex very fast. For many things that cost $1-$20 this is probably not worth the effort. I suspect trial and error is the easier way to find out if something is worth the money. The fact that Wal-Mart and cheap products are still around suggests that either people forget instantly whether something was junk or that in many if not most cases, the value is “good enough”.

    Whether that is the case in the long run can certainly be debated. But just look at product cycles in the consumer or IT industry. Why make something that lasts 20 years if it is outdated after 2 years? I still have toys that were given to my by my grandfather and my daugther is playing with them now. Look at the things commonly sold today. Not likely to happen. Not only because it would not last, but much of that is highly short term hyped and uninteresting after a couple of years, if not month.

    The discussion about value is one that goes way beyond sales and production. In that regards it might have been a good idea for NPR to look at that in general and use this incident as cause.

    • Perry Sainati 16 March 2012 at 11:01 am #

      Good points all, Ralf. When you’re purchasing something that is designed to be thrown away in two years regardless, or is being bought out of petty cash, you’re probably going to be less focused on value.

      But still, at a time when consumers are counting pennies to make ends meet, and professional buyers are operating with razor thin margins, value counts. You don’t want to have to purchase the same thing twice due to faulty workmanship.

      But my point was less about value as more about the idea of making value a selling point, which Harris Teeter failed to do (and what many manufacturers fail to do). Even if it’s just the difference between a $3 pen and $1 pen, my sense is most people would rather pay $3 for a pen that wrote well and lasted than tey would pay $1 for a pen that doesn’t write as well and one that, just as likely as not, may end up being thrown away because it didn’t work.

      But you’re right. Value is more of a consideration when it comes to an investment than it is in matters of a simple impulse purchase.

      Thanks for the comment.

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