LONDON, United Kingdom — Consumers care more than ever about where their products come from. In fact, in recent research, we found that ‘country of origin’ is a more important driver of choice than price or availability and is second only to safety. In other words, people like brands from specific places and prefer them to brands that do not have a provenance story.
Country of origin can mean both where a brand is designed and where it is manufactured. As Apple has brilliantly demonstrated — its products are designed in Cupertino, California, but largely manufactured in China — this does not have to be the same place, as long as the brand is open about the combination.
As you might expect, different countries have perceived expertise in different product categories. The US, France, Italy and the UK resonate most in fashion. But if country of origin can be a driver of competitive advantage for brands, why is current thinking on how to leverage 'Made in' largely limited to manufacturing transparency and economic protectionism?
The answer lies partly in the way the debate has been framed. Typically speaking, ‘Made in’ has been a matter of regulation and labelling, on the one hand, and exposing the ‘hidden’ truths of complex global supply chains, on the other. Where once it was possible to conceal where and how things are made, now digitally connected consumers are able to more easily discover and expose false origin claims or organisations that fail to live up to ethical and safety standards.
Brands are rightly concerned about accusations of inauthenticity (or worse) and so the preoccupation has become about compliance with legislation or managing reputational risk. Instead brands should be harnessing the enormous brand communications advantages country of origin can provide.
When it comes to brand strategy success, the key is to build equity and associations that help you to remain relevant to your target audience and differentiated from your competition. If country of origin is critical to this because of a company’s history, expertise or intellectual property, then it should be treated as a brand asset. Burberry's ‘Britishness’ is a good example of this. Effort should be made to articulate where you manufacture, as part of the origin story. However, being positioned as a British fashion brand does not require a brand to be manufactured exclusively in the UK, if you can demonstrate that there is a consumer benefit to being manufactured elsewhere in terms of materials, quality, authenticity, expertise or value.
But if country of origin is not authentically part of your brand story, avoid jumping on the bandwagon and borrowing equity from a country, region or city. If you cannot demonstrate it is true, or relevant, it is unlikely to matter to any market.
Tom Adams is global head of strategy at FutureBrand.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.
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