It’s Getting More Difficult to ‘Buy American’

With flags waving, fireworks exploding and parades parading, it wasn’t hard this past weekend to see that many Americans enjoy a display of patriotism. But to what extent does such sentiment shape their behavior as consumers? And in an era when global commerce often makes it difficult to determine how “American” a product is, how well is the often-stated desire to “buy American” holding up?

In polling conducted last month by BIGresearch, 57 percent of respondents said they make a conscious effort to buy American-made goods. However, 65 percent also agreed that it’s harder than ever to buy American due to “all the bailouts and buyouts.” In quantitative research conducted in tandem with BIGresearch’s quantitative polling, participants noted that buying American isn’t so simple these days. Typical of consumer comments gathered by a firm named Artafact, which conducted this end of the research, was one person’s lament on the ambiguities a shopper confronts: “I have yet to hear a sound answer to how you determine what an American product is anymore. If a Ford vehicle is assembled in Mexico from parts made in China, is it a U.S. product? How about the Toyotas that are assembled in Tennessee? My Anne Taylor Loft top made in Bangladesh? See the problem?”

Linda Stegeman, Artafact’s founder and president, notes that people are adapting their buy-American sentiment to make it fit the times. “It’s evolving more to ‘buying local’ as a way of ‘buying American’ — buying from the local dealership or the local store,” she says. “It’s almost more a ‘distributor local’ than a ‘manufacturer local’ as a way of buying American.”
Whether buying U.S.-made goods is tricky or not, other polling suggests many Americans regard it as their civic duty to make a good-faith try. A Yankelovich Monitor Minute bulletin in June noted Yankelovich polling last year in which 64 percent of respondents said buying products made in the U.S. is part of “what it means to be a good citizen today.” Eighty-three percent said buying U.S.-made products is important to them, although markedly fewer (37 percent) also said they’re willing to pay at least a little more for such goods. In its analysis of the data, Yankelovich predicts: “Look for the ‘buy American’ sentiment to continue to build — not just as a reaction to recessionary times, but also to consumers’ growing sense of connection to community, both local and national.”

Beleaguered U.S.-based automakers will certainly hope that’s true. Buy-American sentiment plays a role in helping Detroit’s automakers to avoid losing even more market share than they’ve already ceded. In a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted as automakers were heading toward bankruptcy in February, 37 percent of respondents said they’d “only consider cars from an American company” when they were in the market for a new vehicle. Among the poll’s 55-and-older cohort, 45 percent said the same, vs. 27 percent of the 18-34-year-olds.

That pattern is in sync with what Lonnie Miller has seen in his role as director/industry analysis for R.L. Polk, a firm that gathers and interprets data about the auto sector. “I think younger buyers care less than older ones about buying American,” he says. The buy-American ethos tends to be particularly important in helping a domestic automaker win repeat sales, Miller notes — as long, that is, as the buyer has had a positive experience with his or her previous vehicle from that company. As for the age gap, he says, “Older buyers tend to be more loyal, whatever the brand. And they do skew toward domestic brands.”

Miller also sees considerable regional variation in the degree to which American consumers have stuck with American automotive brands, with the Midwest and Upper Plains singled out as “pockets of sympathy” for the domestic companies. At the other end of the spectrum is California. California is like “a different planet” for domestic automakers, says Miller: “It’s such an import-heavy, cosmopolitan group of buyers there.” As he says more generally of consumers who don’t have a loyalty to the domestic auto companies, “They don’t care about your sales targets being achieved. They care about what you put in their driveway.”

While foreign-based automakers obviously can’t make a “buy American” pitch of their own, the growth of their manufacturing in this country means they have an opportunity to blunt the impression that they’re interlopers who take jobs out of the U.S. “Toyota is the most influential in conveying that they’re part of this market,” says Miller. “They got into Nascar a few years ago. How American is that?” Even as it builds cars in this country, a company like Toyota “isn’t going to influence everyone’s mind around this,” adds Miller. “Some people will still say, ‘You’re a foreign company.’ But the guys in Detroit build a lot of cars in Mexico.”

Given the ambiguities (in the automotive sector or elsewhere) about what is or isn’t an “American” product, are people just paying lip service to the idea of buying American — and, hence, are happy to have such complexity as an excuse for not doing so? “My feeling, based on what I’ve been seeing, is that when given an easy choice, people will buy American,” says Artafact’s Stegeman. “They’re savvy enough to know that ‘American’ products might have foreign parts.” But the research she and BIGresearch have done gives reason to think that consumers’ buy-American” impulses might reflect a fidelity not so much to American companies as to American workers. One sign of this: When the BIGresearch polling asked people how they “feel about international companies buying American brands such as Chrysler, Hummer and Anheuser-Busch,” 42 percent said “I worry it will take too many jobs overseas.” When respondents were asked to pick, from a short menu of choices, things that might be a “fix for the current state of the economy,” the most mentions (by 57 percent of those polled) went to “Move manufacturing back on U.S. soil.”

Along the same lines, as the momentum of job losses was building earlier this year, polling by The Integer Group and M/A/R/C Research noted an uptick in the proportion of respondents saying they “seek out American-made” and a corresponding downtick in the number who instead “seek out lowest possible price” (though the latter consistently got more votes than the former). There wasn’t a gender gap in the findings, notes M/A/R/C/ account executive Erika Cinicolo. “However, older consumers are generally more apt to seek out American-made products than younger consumers,” she says.

One company that has always employed American workers is sneaker maker New Balance.  The company announced last month that it was launching “a national celebration of its domestic manufacturing workforce,” with an ad campaign this summer that “highlights its commitment to American workers.” One of the ads shows a worker under the headline, “We punched in in 1906. We never punched out.” Another, which ran last week, shows people holding shoeboxes that have been painted red, white and blue to form an American flag. The headline of this one: “The only athletic shoe company to manufacture shoes in the U.S. says thank you and happy birthday America. Run proud.” This latter ad was drawn from a special video on the brand’s Web site that tells of the company’s long relationship with Skowhegan, Maine, where New Balance is a major employer. The company has seen “consumers of all ages as well as retailers respond well to ‘locally made’ messaging,” says New Balance corporate communications manager Amy Vreeland, “so we felt it was the right time to introduce marketing activities that drive awareness of New Balance’s proud distinction as the only athletic-shoe company that still manufactures in the U.S. We felt these activities would tap into the current resurgence of interest in American brands that support American jobs, and that is where we wanted to focus our efforts.”

Naturally, not every company that can make an explicit “Made in America” pitch in its advertising chooses to do so. For instance, current advertising for Viking Range — which manufactures kitchen equipment in Greenwood, Miss. — focuses on the high-end products rather than on where they’re made. A buy-American appeal “just hasn’t been the strategy in their advertising,” says Kathy Potts, vp/group account director at The Ramey Agency in Jackson Miss., Viking’s ad agency. But she adds that Viking brochures and sales materials do emphasize the company’s role as a domestic manufacturer. Indeed, the company Web site stresses that Viking is based “in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, a region of the nation notorious for unemployment and poverty,” and employs more than 1,500 people. And it discusses in detail the benefits the company provides to its employees. For Potts, the company’s role in its community “is a pillar of Viking’s positioning,” even if not the theme of its advertising. “I think you would find it supports a reason to buy, but it’s not the reason to buy.”   

In any case, the effectiveness of an appeal to “buy American” sentiment will partly depend on the sort of audience a brand is targeting. After all, some population cohorts are more intent than others on displaying their patriotic feelings. Polling earlier in this decade by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press gave a glimpse of this as it asked people whether they display the American flag at their home or office or on their car. Overall, 62 percent of respondents to this polling (conducted at the tag end of 2006 and beginning of 2007) said they do display the flag in one of those venues. Men were a bit more likely than women to say they do so (65 percent vs. 59 percent). There was a sharper divide along age lines: Respondents 65 and older were the most likely to say they display the flag (71 percent) and 18-29-year-olds the least likely (51 percent), with the 30-49s (63 percent) and 50-64s (65 percent) falling in between those extremes. Race was another point of division, with white respondents more likely than their black counterparts to say they display the flag (67 percent vs. 41 percent).

There was also a significant degree of variation by region: Sixty-nine percent of respondents in the Northeast and 67 percent of those in the Midwest said they display the American flag, vs. 58 percent in the South and 57 percent in the West. Of course, one needn’t display the American flag in order to feel patriotic. In the same poll, 90 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “I am very patriotic,” including 49 percent who agreed with it “completely.”