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Brands want to stay British
Feature: 3/1/2004



But does the name matter more that the country of origin?

Some of Britain's best-known brands, including Burberry, Harrods and Aston Martin, are launching a campaign for the right to call themselves British. And the Walpole Group, which represents over 100 high-profile brands, says it will lobby Brussels to drop plans to label goods with “Made in the EU” (director-e News, Tuesday 20 January).

But could it be, in fact that it is the brand itself that generates consumer loyalty – regardless of the country of origin? And maybe the owners of those brand names who want to promote the ‘Made in Britain’ slogan are unaware of just how powerful their own brand name is when it comes to clinching a sale.

Now James Arnold, a business reporter with BBC News Online has looked into whether the country of origin really matters to the consumer.

He poses the question: Need the best car? Get a German model. An electronic gizmo? Buy Japanese. And as for clothes, everyone knows the smartest ones come from Paris. But, as he points out, everyone who gives it a moment's thought also knows that your German car may have been built in Slovakia, your Japanese stereo assembled in China, and your French knickers sewn together in Pakistan.

As the corporate world ever more tightly embraces globalisation, the relationship between brands and their country of origin is becoming looser and more confusing.

Changing perceptions

In part, this is the result of our changing perceptions of national identity, says Peter Fisk, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Marketing. "Until not long ago, the idea that Hong Kong could produce quality products seemed ridiculous”, he says. "Things are very different now”.

Even more, it is driven by economics. In recent years, most large consumer-goods companies have started to focus on brand-management, spinning off the once-central function of manufacturing to contractors, often in the developing world.

Even firms with a highly distinctive brand identity can manage this, experts reckon.

Levi Strauss, whose jeans are icons of the Wild West, has just closed its last Texan plant in favour of contract manufacturing overseas (director-e News, Tuesday 13 January). Royal Doulton, a 200-year-old British pottery brand with strong heritage associations, now manufactures in Indonesia and Bangladesh, while local rival Waterford Wedgwood prefers China.

In effect, argues James Arnold, consumers have switched their allegiance from country to company. By rolling out highly regimented marketing and brand-identity campaigns on a level unimaginable a decade or two ago, supra-national corporations can offer the same reassurance that consumers once sought from a "Made in Britain" label.

National stereotypes

So are we now blind to country of origin? Not quite, it seems. National stereotypes are far weaker than they were, but certain apparently inalienable associations still cling to countries. The Japanese are diligent, the French glamorous, the British polite and fair-minded.

For substantial classes of products, national or regional identity is always going to be crucial. Chinese toys are one thing – Chinese pasta sauce another entirely.

William McGrath, chief executive of Aga Foodservice, says his firm plays unashamedly on its British heritage while selling its cookers both at home and abroad. "More than half our business is outside the UK now, but our Britishness is still important", he told BBC News Online.

"It's about authenticity”, he adds. “When we can point to the fact that our factory foreman is the 30th in a line that goes directly back to the Industrial Revolution, that matters a lot”.

More subtly, says Keith Wells of agency Dragon Brands, national associations are still being built into brand images, but often in surprising ways. Audi, for instance, with its avowedly meaningless German-language slogan, has highlighted its country's reputation for solid engineering while subtly sending it up.

And the long-lasting "auto emocion" branding for Spain's Seat, meanwhile, has brought it the sort of Mediterranean flair previously enjoyed only by Italian companies.

Cleverest of all, says Mr Wells, is Apple, which appeals to American values of can-do optimism and individuality without being bracketed with lumbering compatriots such as IBM, Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble.

Tricky exercise

What, then, of Brussels' idea to create a "Made in the EU" label for the region's products?

Europe is a tricky branding exercise, says Keith Wells, but is not without possibilities. "It has a newness and a boldness about it”, he says. "It can be courageous, but bright and sparkly with it”.

But opposition to an EU imprimatur springs from the fact that no two people are agreed on what Europe really means.

"A country-of-origin label is a driver for how you feel about a product”, says Peter Fisk. "Only when you build a Europe that people can understand will it start to mean something emotionally”.
Author: John Gibbon
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