New Balance Plays Patriotism Card in New Marketing Push

Athletic-Footwear Brand Trumpets Fact That a Quarter of Its Shoes Are Made in the U.S.

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The "Made in America" claim is one that's traditionally attracted little interest from American consumers accustomed to purchasing items produced in distant lands. But with unemployment on the rise and the bankruptcy of manufacturing icons General Motors and Chrysler, New Balance is banking on a shift in consumer awareness of and preference for American-made goods.

New Balance's documentary about Skowhegan, Maine.
New Balance's documentary about Skowhegan, Maine.
The athletic-shoe company is launching a national campaign touting its domestic manufacturing and highlighting the fact that each year a quarter of its total athletic-footwear production is either made or assembled in the U.S. The timing could be advantageous, given that increasing U.S. manufacturing job losses are grabbing headlines. In May the number of manufacturing positions lost accelerated to 156,000, compared with April's loss of 154,000, even as the overall number of jobs lost slowed, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

New Balance does run the risk that consumers will view the campaign as disingenuous. After all, 75% of the company's footwear is produced outside the U.S., although that compares with 100% for most other U.S. footwear companies. And eagle-eyed consumers will note some New Balance products are labeled "Made in America," while others are tagged "Assembled in America." New Balance said the bottom line is that its U.S. operations allow for 1,300 manufacturing jobs in Maine and Massachusetts. Globally, the company employs about 4,000 people.

Consumer trend experts say the made-in-America tack could touch a positive nerve with the public. Not only are Americans reeling from job losses, they are also feeling sensitive about American heritage, given the number of iconic American companies that have become shells of their former selves. To that end, New Balance's ability to promote itself as the only athletic-footwear manufacturer making shoes in the U.S. could go over very well.

"There's a lot of fear as well as negative anticipation that America's best days are behind it," said Rob Kozinets, an anthropologist and professor of marketing at York University's Schulich School of Business. "There's a heritage thing that kicks in too, which is all about the good old days." Mr. Kozinets said consumers are shifting their priorities, as evidenced by the rise of organic food and the locavore movement. "There's a big shift we're starting to already see," he said. "People are becoming more concerned about production, not just consumption. It's interesting to see it showing up in advertising."

After all, other athletic brands such as Nike and Adidas have cultivated their brands largely with images of athletes and hip tastemakers, not factory floors and workers.

The New Balance campaign that launches this week includes an online documentary, as well as print, radio and online ads. The documentary highlights the town of Skowhegan, Maine, home to one of New Balance's five U.S. manufacturing facilities. Interviews with workers are interspersed with images of small-town life, a baseball game, a diner and images of the factory. Digital Kitchen produced the documentary, while Almighty, Boston, handled the digital-marketing plan. BBDO, New York, created the print ads; Conover Tuttle Pace, Boston, produced the radio ads.

Jamie Gordon, director of knowledge and insight at Trend Influence, said she expects the campaign to resonate with consumers, given a broad desire for messages that are authentic and optimistic. "American consumers are feeling a sense of unity, affirmed by the ability to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps," Ms. Gordon said. "It's great to see New Balance, as an American brand, embracing their American equity and helping the American consumer to be more optimistic and see a better, brighter future."

Whether the campaign is the beginning of a larger trend in which companies emphasize their American heritage remains to be seen. As Phil Rist, exec VP-strategic initiatives at BigResearch, pointed out, the Obama administration has been clear in its messaging that we are global citizens. Yet, he said, there is still a sense of national pride among many consumers, for whom the campaign is likely to be appealing. However, he did say the fact the the majority of its footwear is not made in the U.S. might prove a sticking point.

New Balance is certainly not expecting that to be the case. "Given the economic climate, we think our celebration of a manufacturing success story will resonate with both our current consumers and consumers who may not to be as familiar with our brand," said New Balance spokeswoman Amy Vreeland. "Typically, in tough times, people focus on fundamentals and values, and this story is really about people, their craftsmanship and community, which is core to the American way of life."

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