Where did you come from and does it matter?

This weekend, Clay Shirky wrote on Twitter:

Nokia products say “Made in China” on the back. Chinese-made Nokia-knockoffs say “Made in Finland.”

Interesting point, isn’t it? Let’s ignore for the purpose of this post that my Nokia N97 actually says “Made in Finland” inside it (although given my publicly declared love for it, I have cause to wonder if it really is a Chinese-made-knockoff in which case Vodafone is in real trouble!). I have made interesting discoveries about some of my stuff since this tweet appeared. My kettle doesn’t say where it was manufactured; two pairs of American branded shoes are Made-in-China while two other pairs of Italian shoes are Made-in-Italy; the English brand of lotions says Made-in-England while the French cast iron pots are variously Made-in-France, Made-in-Thailand and Made-in-USA.

What do these “Made-in-X” labels mean anymore? Do they mean anything any more at all?

In some industries, such as automotives, the supply chain is componentised (sic!) and truly globalised (pdf link) to such an extent that only the brand is ever owned by an entity whose national identity can be named. In others, the lax labelling laws mean that products made in China and finished in a European country can sell at huge prices as “Made-in-EuropeanCountry” products. Rights to some otherwise unrelated and disparate brands, for specific product categories, such as eye wear, have been licensed out to specialists who maintain the brand’s identity but the consumer may not quite know (or care) where her sunglasses were manufactured.

What is clear is that it doesn’t matter where the product comes from but it sure matters where the brand comes from. Many strategies are emerging by which brand owners are outdoing or trying to contain competition.

Champagne or sparkling wine: Legal protection

In Europe, several regimes are enshrined in EU Law to protect the names of regional foods. These include Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) and Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) labels. Foods that can only be labelled as such if they come from the designated locations include Parmigiano-Reggiano, Melton Mowbray pork pies, and Camembert de Normandie. Of course, sparkling wines can only be called Champagne if they come from the eponymous French region and this privilege is protected by the Treaty of Madrid. Indeed Mumm made and bottled in France is champagne while Mumm from Napa Valley in the USA is sparkling wine!

Bespoke or custom-made: Consumer education

Indeed not all products can fight for such protected status. So they seek to rely upon the key attributes of their brand and to promote them. In the now well-known Sartoriani v. Savile Row row,the Advertising Standards Agency ruled that although Sartoriani did not make its suit entirely by hand and did some cutting abroad, it was allowable to let them use the term “bespoke” in their advertising. Sartoriani’s products do not all match the 21 characteristics of a Savile Row suit but it may be ok for some. Savile Row’s name is synonymous with “bespoke” for many and Savile Row Bespoke Association continues to reiterate its commitment to high standards of craftsmanship.

All examples so far have been about consumer goods. What about technology-led businesses?

Value appropriation: knowing what matters and claiming it

All Apple products – whether a weather-beaten Powerbook, a bright new Macbook Pro or an ordinary iPod – say the following at the bottom:

Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.

To the Apple consumer, the whole Apple legend matters and Apple knows how to appropriate it cleverly. Apple is a California company in many respects – innovative and iconoclastic. Apple is also known for its design coups from the iMac to the iPod. For a technology-led business, such as Apple, design and engineering excellence matters, über alles. And Apple knows it. The manufacturing information label on Apple products says it just right. It makes it clear who creates the value and claims it. That the products are assembled in China almost does not matter.

Except that there is a twist in this story. Which is worth pointing out as many of my clients are British technology-led businesses.

The designer of Apple’s recent bestsellers – the Powerbook G4 (on which I write this post), the iMac, the Macbook, the Macbook Pro, the iPod and the iPhone is British, a man named Jonathan Ive.

Then another thing happened yesterday just as Clay Shirky’s tweet appeared. For the second year in a row, a British man, Jenson Button, won the Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship. A British team, Brawn GP, also won the Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship. Yes, there is a touch of globalisation there too – with a French head of aerodynamics, a Brazilian driver, a German engine powering the cars – but the team achieved the near-impossible give its difficult beginnings for the 2009 season. Or as Doug Ellison told Lord Drayson, our Minister For Science and Innovation:

And a British engine even if it says Merc on the badge, designed and built in Northamptonshire. A VERY British championship.

So what’s in it for technology-led businesses?

  • Great engineering and design skill;
  • Recognition of the value of your skill and your brand;
  • Appropriation of that value; and where necessary,
  • Leveraging the value of the technological excellence of another, probably unrelated sector with whom you may share a common, positive characteristic.

If as the leader of a technology-led business, you focus on these strategic building blocks, then it doesn’t matter where the product comes from, just who owns the brand.

And your being a British technology business may just work in your favour too.

Related reading:

The dilemma of Savile Row brands

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