The French politicians have recently jumped on a frantic “Made in France” bandwagon that is kicking up quite a bit of dust around the question of French-made and French-bought. Their solution is surprisingly simple: “keep production local = less unemployment.” Almost too simple, in fact, so many can wonder why no one brought it up earlier.
Buying French satisfies a kind of nationalistic, quasi-moral duty, which, in turn, fosters and feeds the Good Samaritan in everyone. The notion rides on a wave of citizen-driven patriotism, playing up to every populist promise. I suppose it is the same in many western countries which face the crisis. In the past few weeks, many economists have questioned the relevance of recent remarks made by those seeking office in the upcoming elections. Does the act of buying French pertain to a Romanian-made Renault? How about a Toyota fresh off the conveyor belt in Valenciennes- France? Does that qualify as buying Japanese? Let us not be so quick to ignore the likelihood that several contractors have parts brought in from China among others. It is not inconceivable either that the vehicle design and R&D were tweaked in Japan, not to mention the marketing strategy. French-built, OK. Still not French.
Given that consumers have been pushed over the years to pay less and less and curb inflation, the bane of our Western economies, they cannot be blamed for not knowing which way is up. How can governments even pretend to be surprised at the sight of consumers reaching for Chinese-, Mexican, Tunisian- or Romanian-made products when, for years, they oiled the wheels of their very own consumption machine? The foundation of most consumer marketing strategies revolves around “the least expensive.” Major retailers took things a step further by trying to put a moral spin on the “lowest price” debate by using consumer protection as a pretext. It’s public knowledge that they made out like a bandit. “Cheap” does sell, and continues to lure new prey, and the fact that few superstores have closed their doors in the past three decades can attest for that.
On top of this, are we to believe that companies would choose to manufacture in any country under the umbrella of conscientious citizenry? This would lead us to trust that they have the courage to put their Morals before their Margins and their Compassion before their Competitiveness. Faced with fierce competition, are company leaders capable of feasibly manufacturing and selling products piloted by patriotism alone? Of course not! A company is designed to make money, generate margins and wealth that is subsequently distributed among employees, the government and shareholders. To forego this objective is to forego company potential and wealth creation. The economy has gone global, and the markets international. Companies have but one option: follow suit.
They are moving their businesses elsewhere because elsewhere means more business. So, what’s the problem? Efficiency, impeccable cost-cutting measures and margin management, and identifying where labor is cheapest are the basics to respect when it comes to entering the international competition arena. If companies don’t, their competitors will, and the former will have to close shop due to the feisty nature of the market.
One thing is certain: our factories will go where a more fruitful financial climate abounds… including abroad. Companies may be forced to repatriate in the years to come as a result of rising energy and transportation costs; a factor that will, no doubt, downplay the former ups of decentralized operations. Bringing production and markets closer together may be the only viable option left. With this in mind, inviting foreign investors becomes a virtuous circle, and reverses the “Made outside” tendency. What does it mean then “to buy American” or “to buy French” if, by chance, Haier (leading Chinese manufacturer of appliances and electronics) or Toyota becomes the top employer in these countries?
Western businesses may soon be in an outward-bound predicament in order to bridge the gap with booming markets abroad. It has now become urgent that they equip themselves with the necessary manufacturing operations enabling them to sell to the Chinese, Indians and Brazilians, and come tomorrow, owing to a growing economy, to those of the dawning middle class in certain African countries.
Devoid of meaning nowadays, the “Made in” voyage seems to be coming to an end while the “Designed by” one is about to set sail. It’s this label that will symbolize value, product quality and image. Instead of defending an old-fashioned “Made in” concept tied to industrial know-how from way back when Western-made products were once considered the epitome of better quality in comparison to their foreign-made counterparts, it makes more sense today to devote energy to establishing real quality criteria that make an actual difference. If industrial productivity is not enough to single out Occidental businesses, value-added must be sought elsewhere, such as in innovation, R&D, marketing and design.
Emmanuel Combe, Professor at Pantheon-Sorbonne University (Paris 1), recently brought up the example of iPod by Apple, a company that clearly states on all of its products, “Designed by Apple in California, Assembled in China.” If one were to take an MP3 player worth $299, $163 went to American companies and employees (marketing, research, design, etc.). The Chinese got $4. Should Americans be ashamed of having relocated Apple? Hardly. More like pat on the back.
Backing up “Designed by” means helping companies export and take advantage of the notoriety embedded in their own culture and their own touch.
Quality is no longer bound by procedures responsible for having driven a certain number of businesses to focus solely on their production, thwarting any attempt at innovation and proving detrimental to growth. A new take on quality must be triggered. Innovation knows no boundaries, and it will overstep any in its path. “Designed by” makes the most of a strategic and advantageous position built on meaning and good taste. At a time of systemic crisis where our values get put through the wringer, “Designed by” offers a privileged moment to reconnect with our roots and humanity with regard to what we manufacture and/or consume.
The ability to innovate, relocate and change jobs will be the make-or-break factor behind companies’ success abroad. Design and the culture and image of creation abroad on the whole breathe tremendous movement and meaning into innovation. It is time for politicians to give “Designed by ” the credit it is due, and to quit surfing the “Made in” wave, whose hang time, in my opinion, seems to have run out.
Pierre Jakez Helias writes, “Before we become, we come from.” “Designed by” is the chance to not only remember our roots, but anchor our thoughts around recognizing and reiterating their importance through openness and transmission. I fear that “Made in” will, ultimately, make us curl up and hide, whereas the only real choice we have is to be a model to those around us… and beyond. “Designed by” designs us.