Ditch the Flags; Kids Don't Care Where You Come From

Internet-Oriented Youth Don't Know, or Bother, About Country of Origin

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YORK, Pa. (AdAge.com) -- You may be proud to be American (or Korean, or Swedish), but you won't impress the kids by bragging about it.
Brand Identity
Photo Illustration: John Kuczala
Not only are young consumers unable to identify the country of origin for their favorite brands, but they also don't seem to care.


Once upon a time, it made sense to proudly announce a product's country of origin in your advertising. Many car buyers were proud to buy American. Technofiles knew the best electronics equipment came from Japan. And people of a certain stripe will always argue that Belgium makes the best beer. Even today, big brands like Chevrolet spend tens of millions a year reminding us that they're as homemade as apple pie and rally monkeys.

Indifference
But attitudes are changing. According to a recent study from Anderson Analytics, most college consumers aren't sure where their favorite products come from -- and may not even care. In an increasingly global world of brands and media, is a product's country of origin even relevant anymore? The younger demographic seems to vote a fairly definitive no.

"They don't care about country of origin because of the way their world has been defined," said Ted Morris, senior VP-global alliances at BrandIntel. "Being online transcends geography. ... Point of origin is becoming less relevant."

The recent Anderson Analytics study of college students bears out the same sentiments. "For the most part, this next generation of educated American consumers either have no clue where the brands they use come from or simply assume everything comes from the United States, Japan or Germany," said Tom Anderson, managing partner.



For instance, only 4.4% of college students surveyed knew that Nokia is Finnish, while 53.6% guessed the brand was Japanese. Lego, LG, Samsung and Adidas faced similar problems, with fewer than 10% of students knowing the respective countries of origins as Denmark, Korea, Korea, and Germany, instead guessing, also respectively: U.S., U.S., Japan, and U.S. Not surprisingly, retail brand Ikea did well with this crowd -- likely because their stylish but cheap furniture is a college staple -- with 31.2% correctly guessing Sweden. But even then, another 23.6% thought the brand was from the U.S.

Less discerning
Part of the problem with the younger group is a lack of consumer experience. As Jupiter Research analyst Emily Riley pointed out, young consumers tend to have less disposable income and are trend buyers.

"As consumers age, we see value for quality become more of a concern and that's when things like geographic associations come into play," she said. "Teens may be too young to even know those, and are probably too young to care."

Interestingly, though, the same kids had definite ideas about which countries produce the highest-quality goods overall: Japan was first at 81.8%, followed by the U.S. at 78.5%, Germany at 77.1%, Italy at 73.9% and the U.K. at 66.1%.

Linking to one's home base seems to work better for some products than for others. In the Anderson Analytics study, college students rated tech products like cellphones as roughly of the same quality, whether they knew the correct country of origin or not.

Recognizing luxury
But that was not the case for luxury goods -- or, interestingly, for cars. Hermès scored 23% higher with students who correctly identified it as a French rather than a U.K. brand. Similarly, Lexus got 13% more low ratings from students who thought it was a U.S. brand than it did from those who knew it was Japanese. In other words, younger consumers today believe Japanese cars are better quality than their American counterparts -- a notion that might've been considered almost heresy several decades ago.

When it comes to your country's reputation, Mr. Anderson said, "You need to know if it's good, bad or indifferent. If it's good, play it up. If it's bad, just let it slide. If it's indifferent, you can decide whether to use it or not."

Of course there are multiple reasons for flag waving. In the auto industry, for example, companies such as Honda and Toyota tout the fact that many of their cars are "made in America," not to make claims regarding quality, but to show an older generation of Americans that the manufacturers have a stake in the "local" economy.

On the other hand, brands such as General Motors' Chevy are laying claim to a long, proud heritage in the U.S. Chevy spends big to do so. "American Revolution," its umbrella campaign for cars and trucks, began in late 2003. In September 2006, it began marketing its 2007 Silverado truck with the patriotic "Our Country, Our Truck" campaign set to John Mellencamp's song "Our Country." GM spent $77 million in measured media during October and November 2006 on Silverado, according to TNS.

Not like the old days
Such efforts help to move metal by speaking to older buyers who grew up during the "us vs. them" mentality of the Cold War. But, said Jonathan Paisner, brand director at CoreBrands, the flag waving and patriotism used in the Chevy ads likely don't strike the same note for young people.

"This younger generation has a more cynical perspective on things like patriotism, and that [marketing approach] can strike this group as heavy-handed or an old-world approach. ... That can be kind of a dangerous star to hitch yourself to."

Global thinking and online community also has smoothed out the image of countries that may have faired poorly reputation-wise with older demos.

That also means that a less-positive country association could change over time, although analysts agree it's a slow process.

"It's definitely not a fixed thing. It used to be that 'Made in America' was great and 'Made in Japan' was crap and now, if you're talking about electronics, I'd say it's almost the opposite," Mr. Paisner said. "It takes a long time -- you definitely have to prove yourself."

Tips for waving the flag

  • Tell the whole story. Don't assume consumers know your product's heritage or country of origin.
  • Use the web. If you can't tell the whole story in one print or TV ad, try expounding online. Point consumers to websites, social-networking pages, videos and wiki entries where they can "discover" your brand for themselves.
  • Stay tuned to current events. Be ready to drop the flag if national or global sentiment suddenly drops on negative news. Call us cynics, but it works in reverse, too.
  • Know what they're thinking. Find out if your brand and country association helps, hurts or does nothing for your product. Then act accordingly.
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