Even though most electronics and consumer goods production has moved to China, a third of Americans surveyed said they would not buy a brand if they knew it was Chinese-owned.
There are two twists that make this survey point ironic, if not slightly amusing: A majority of Americans probably can't name a Chinese brand, and Americans have been buying Chinese-made products branded under more common US names for years but somehow the idea of Chinese-owned brand means something different than “Made in China.”
A recent survey done by HD Trade Services (HDTS) indicates that about a third of 1,500 Americans surveyed wouldn't knowingly buy a brand owned by a Chinese company; notably, the other 68 percent would (a stat that surprised me given the strong “Made in America” sentiment I often hear).
Conversely, when an equal number of Americans were asked if they would buy Japanese-owned brands, 81 percent of respondents say yes, they would. And, if your corporate name sounds German — like in the case of Chinese-based Haier, the world's top major appliance brand — you may win consumer perception points, too, because of the association Americans make with German-engineered products.
In another poll, HDTS, which provides distribution, marketing, and fulfillment services and helps Chinese brands with United States market development, asked 1,500 Americans the following question, “Name the Chinese brands with which you are most familiar (list up to five brands).”
Guess what? Ninety-four percent of those surveyed could not name even one Chinese brand. And, I thought names like Lenovo, Hisense, Huawei, and ZTE were pretty common brands by now.
As HDTS points outs, the paradox is a bit startling. “Look around your house, look around your office. What percentage of products — furniture, fashion and accessories, electronics, housewares, appliances — do you think were made in China? Based on market data, chances are that number is close to 50 percent,” the firm said.
Several reasons perhaps explain the stigma for Chinese-named products. One obvious hurdle is the general perception Americans (and others in the Western world) have of Chinese products.
When compared against American, German, or Japanese-made devices, Chinese electronics products are seen as low-cost and low-quality devices, despite the fact that the most well-respected US and European companies have products made by Chinese workers in Chinese factories.
It doesn't help either that many of the counterfeit parts slipping into the electronics supply chain come from — or again, are perceived as coming from — China. Of course, the US-Chinese political backdrop, where espionage finger pointing reads like a Tom Clancy novel, fuels the “China is bad” mindset among typical American consumers.
Much of this perception, arguably, could be connected to how manufacturing supply chains evolved in different regions. Concepts like Kanban, Lean, and Six Sigma have long roots in high-tech production and supply chain processes, and Western companies have invested plenty in ensuring that their operations meet these universally accepted standards.
Until recently, Chinese companies were not held to this same standard. China was — and still is — the low-cost alternative, the place where generic set-top boxes were efficiently pushed out during around-the clock shifts and shipped in boxes printed with better-known global names.
Western companies opened shop here because that's where they got significant tax breaks, saw direct and indirect labor costs drop and were able to win shareholder approval by turning profits on low-margin consumer electronics production. Product quality was an afterthought, only now creeping into the Chinese manufacturing mindset as Western companies come under different consumer and shareholder pressures.
Partners vs. competitors
Also, a noticeable shift has happened, which might further confuse the branding messaging. Chinese companies used to just make products for all the major top-tier OEMs, and their name stayed out of the limelight. They were supply chain partners, not competitors.
Now, more Chinese companies are taking their manufacturing expertise global, trying to establish their own brand and win market share in the important North American market. Not only does this change OEM-supplier relationship dynamics, it flips a different switch in the consumer's mind.
For some reason, consumers may not think twice about buying Chinese-made flat screen TVs, video game consoles, phones, laptops, or cameras, but they will pause if the name and address on the box changes from a Silicon Valley company to one located in Shanghai.
Maybe it's a brand loyalty issue, but I suspect the buying-decision pause stems more from accountability and trust issues, which, from a brand and marketing perspective, are harder things to develop and require more time to build.
I wonder: If China had not been initially labeled as the low-cost offshoring country of choice a couple decades ago, would Americans have a different point of view today? Reversely, what if Japan, Germany, and, say, Detroit in the 1970s and 1980s went the route of China and converted into low-cost manufacturing hubs? Would we hold products from those regions in high esteem?
Really, what this shows is the fickle nature of the consumer. People may not care much where a product is made or even how it's made, but change the corporate name on the product they buy and all sorts of red flags go up.