Thursday, September 15, 2005

Swiss Made

I was at the airport before TGS, getting a latte, which is what I often do at airports. Who am I kidding? It's what I often do.

Anyway, the establishment had some fine looking big, red espresso machines from a swiss company. How do I know that? Because they had a big "SWISS MADE" emblem on the back of each.

This reminded me of a conversation I'd had with Alisa and her folks the previous night about sewing machine brands. We'd seen an ad for a Husqvarna sewing machine. I thought Husqvarna was Russian (I was wrong, my mother-in-law was right in saying it's Swedish), and remarked how the brand had overcome a negative image over the past couple decades. As a teen, I knew of them for motorcross bikes, and they weren't held in the same esteem as Yamaha or Suzuki were.

The conversation went on to Bernina, the Bimmer of Broidery, if you will. I thought they were Italian (again, mum in law was right that they were in fact Swiss. Note to self: Don't question mum-in-law's sewing-machine-fu).

On this one, though, either nationality worked in conveying quality. The swiss are known for fine machinery (and chocolate & Skiing of course), and the italians are known for high fashion, not to mention a history of fine sports cars and the butt-pinching of female tourists.

So what does it mean, then, to use nationality to add some cred to a brand, product or service?

Certain countries have long-steeped reputations for certain traits:

  • Swiss make precision instruments (watches, lenses, sewing machines, clocks, and while less popular than in the past, cameras).
  • German = precision engineering, exacting detail.
  • Italian = hand-crafted, exquisite taste.

On the negative side,

  • Chinese = cheaply made.
  • Malaysia = cheaply made by children shackled to sewing machines.
  • England = (for cars anyway) oil in your driveway.

How do such "national brand traits" vary with time?

Japanese used to be synonymous with cheap manufacturing as well (for transistor radios, steel, automobiles). That was until the 70's oil crisis and the american auto industry waking up to find that japanese quality had crept up and surpassed them while they slept and *surprise* with products that were more relevant to the customer. Today Japanese has come to mean innovation and quality to most areas. In addition, there's a kitchy pop culture element to some products such as games, movies and fashion.

What does "American Made" mean? That's a difficult question.

There are certainly some that would claim it means better quality, leading innovation, and such things. I have to feel that even those that claim this don't *entirely* beleive it in their hearts. It seems to always be tainated with a patriotic bent, "This car is American-made! You are an American, aren't you? Then you should buy American!". Which calls into question the assertion that it's really better. If it was, shouldn't that be pitch enough?

I wonder whether a country's leadership takes into account it's country's brand image, and in any way steers it? Could it if it wanted to? If you were China's leadership, would you be doing anything to improve quality standards around products to make you competitive in that domain, following Japan's lead?

How much 'momentum' does a national brand image have? Does the American-made connotation of quality harken to a post WWII era in which it was true? How long before the world says "what have you done for me lately?". Perhaps they already have... Does American-made connote "they don't make 'em like they used to?"

If you were a country that didn't really have a brand image for it's goods, how would you establish one? Let's take my homeland of Canada. Big exports (thus likely candidates to hang your hat on) include natural resources (lumber, nickel, electricity --> "Canada - FEEL THE POWER!!!"), hi-tech (ATI, Matrox, Softimage, Alias, Ubisoft, many many more), and other things. Do you pick the biggest, or the trendiest? The most established or the fastest growing? Or do you dilute the brand by focusing on everything - and thus nothing?

There are many other countries facing this problem, and many more will as many other emerging countries "switch on" in the global marketplace. I'm almost certain India's brand image will go from "cheap tech labor" to "innovation leader" in the next 20 years. What will others do? South Africa? Australia? Thailand? (there's a country who's rep needs help!)

How about France? I know many cool software companies there, but outside of wine & cheese, "French-made" doesn't bring any particular image to mind.

"French maid" of course does, but that's for another blog entry. Or perhaps best kept to myself.


william said...

Wow - interesting post.

Husqvarna Rules!

Mark said...

So how was the espresso?