A bar displays an American flag made of beer cans
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Made in America: Brand Boon or Brand Burden?

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Made in America: A rallying cry, a blunt instrument, a razor that might cut both ways. Our new president stoked the flames of the faithful with his “Make America Great Again” mantra, promising to return American manufacturing to heights unseen in two generations and to stock shelves with products that shine with their red, white, and blue provenance.

But there’s the noise of a simple slogan and then there’s the reality of the marketplace. Today’s supply chains girdle the globe, complicating most mainstream manufacturers’ ability to say that their goods have 100 percent American DNA. And for those companies that do all their work within US boundaries, would they want any association with an administration that many see as toxic? You can’t ride on coattails that are tearing.

More directly: Do the bulk of consumers even care if something is made in the United States? If you’re a CMO of a company that makes goods here (or, as in the complication above, uses some imported goods as part of your process), is it patriotic shine or bottom line that makes the difference? Where does love of country meet marketing strategy?

Woman stands in front of art installation reading

Image attribution: Victor Lozano

Throw Some Shade on Where It’s Made

First, let’s consider that “Made in America” can be a slippery concept. American car companies do have manufacturing plants here, but they source parts from all over the world. For example, Mexico is a major supplier of auto parts, which sometimes cross the border more than once, in different forms, before they are bolted into your dad’s Buick.

One challenge for big companies is that the United States doesn’t have the thriving matrix of large factories that are readily available overseas: They simply can’t fulfill orders for thousands—or hundreds of thousands—of pieces. And interestingly, as one AOL Finance article points out, the majority of workers in many American factories are immigrants, which has a touch of irony about it. However, a New York Times piece makes clear that for some manufacturers of narrow-market luxury goods, making merchandise at home, while challenging, can have profitable (and even psychological) upsides—politics aside.

That bespoke American goods cachet also has another home-grown component: technology. Most economists are pessimistic that American factories can ever again even remotely resemble the scale of yesterday, but today’s tech is enabling a host of manufacturing startups. Fast Company details the thriving garment manufacturing hub in Los Angeles that makes use of data analytics to sell goods through real-time demand and reduced inventory. They also make note of the vertically integrated supply chains that control “everything from the factory to the distribution.” Efficiency is often a winning strategy.

The profiles of luxury eyeglass and watch manufacturers in the same article reinforce “new manufacturing” on domestic shores: leaner, smaller scale, and customized. None of the several business leaders in the piece are avowedly Trumpish in their made-in-the-USA pride; to the contrary, they expressed alarm over the proposed border tax and over the potential for their employees to face immigration issues due to new laws.

Patriotism versus Profits—a False Dichotomy?

There’s a Made in America Movement online that claims 440,000 members and has a page with links to goods and services provided by vetted companies claiming to make their products solely in America. However, investigating some of the categories reveals thin company: Clicking on “Automotive” reveals a single company in the category, specializing in truck bed liners.

A Brand Keys survey of iconic (and patriotic) American brands has Jeep, Coca-Cola, and Levi Strauss among the top, as they all were 15 years ago. Yet all of those companies have investments as well as production and distribution facilities overseas, so patriotism and profits, on examination, might be an uneasy mix.

Some brands like Under Armour are experimenting on a small scale with an American-made play, testing their processes and their pricing to see if the appeal has legs—legs the color of dollars, that is. Conversely, other fashion brands are getting some pushback from consumers because of associations with Trump’s USA thrust, no matter how uninterested the companies are in politics. Again, a made-in-the-USA marketing strategy might cut both ways.

Pricing seems to interest consumers more than patriotism, as several surveys suggest. One CNN piece explores how consumers are on the lookout for a deal rather than Old Glory when they shop. An Associated Press poll, detailed in the Chicago Tribune, reached the same conclusion.

Close-up of Harley-Davidson motorcycle engine

Made in the USA: “It’s Complicated”

Even venerable stars-and-stripes-flying brands like Harley-Davidson might be accused of some taint, because although every bike is assembled on these shores, they contract out for parts made all over the world. Another American institution, L.L. Bean, indeed still makes a variety of goods out of their Maine factory, but they now contract with overseas vendors as well. They have a “Made in America” section on their site, which subtly informs the customer that some goods are not.

If you’re way out West, you might not be aware that America’s biggest—and oldest—craft brewer is Yuengling (1829), and their water, hops, and yeast do come from the Old Sod on this side of the pond, though some big boys like Budweiser, who sport Americana themes coast to coast, are owned by foreign conglomerates (in this case, the Belgian company InBev). Even a hallowed American brand like Jim Beam (1795) sails some of its ships far from these shores as a subsidiary of Japan’s Suntory Holdings.

So, there’s the American image, there are manufacturing and supply chain facts, there are consumer inclinations that tilt one way and then another—and there’s a vast gray area of what it means to be American made, and if it really matters all that much anyway. In the meantime, while legislative bodies in Congress rant and posture, some smaller and newer American companies like Detroit’s Shinola, which makes highly regarded watches and bikes, are having a positive impact in their communities. While still sourcing some of their parts from overseas, they have made a declared commitment to American manufacturing and hiring. That’s not un-American, is it?

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Tom Bentley is a content marketing copywriter and editor, a magazine feature writer,  a travel writer and a published fiction writer and editor. He's published articles in Forbes, The American Scholar, the Los Angeles Times, Wine Enthusiast, the San Francisco Chronicle, Wired, the San Jose Mercury News, Draft magazine and many more. He has won several nonfiction and fiction writing awards.

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