GAUGING AMERICAN BRAND APPEAL
Byline: Karyn Monget
NEW YORK — In the wake of terrorist strikes against America, industry executives are bracing for the response of American consumers and how buying patterns and traditional marketing rules will be affected in the coming months.
As President Bush stated following the tragedy: “It is back to business, but it’s not business as usual.”
When it comes to branded products, particularly apparel, consumers are expected to interpret the President’s statement in a variety of ways — ranging from a greater reliance on well-known brands and marketing messages that appeal to deep-seated emotions, to a possible backlash against products and brands that are perceived to be non-American.
Many executives said they generally believe there will not be a big push for products made in America, mainly because of the cost of relying more on “Made in USA” merchandise due to higher wages and expenses in factories. But they acknowledge that the average American consumer could reevaluate product and brand buys based on the support or lack of support from a country of origin where merchandise is made, even if they don’t embrace the made-in-America philosophy.
Allan Ellinger, senior managing director of MMG, an apparel consulting and investment firm, said: “While there are viable options that are not American — like an Iranian soda or an Iraqi bra — established brands are strong now and will continue to be as strong. A big question is what will happen if another country like Italy or France, whose many brand names are synonymous with that country, did not come into the coalition. Will people stop buying those brands?”
According to a joint survey by Doner, a Detroit-based communications firm specializing in retail, and the University of Michigan’s Institute of Social Research — both of whom have examined consumer spending and behavior patterns during other times of crisis, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Persian Gulf War and the Oklahoma City bombing — retailers and manufacturers will need to address a consumer who has become tougher, less tolerant and far more critical.
The survey — conducted in the days immediately following the crisis — outlines several factors that are expected to influence consumer purchases:
Shoppers are more in touch with their heritage as Americans, making them more inclined to identify with brands that fit their values and perceptions. This will provide an added challenge for brands that are either imported or viewed as non-American.
Brands that are associated with the emotional feelings of “escape” and symbolize aspiration, inspiration and joy, will have a special attraction. Additionally, marketing messages that embody a sweeping sense of American patriotism will be important, particularly during the holiday season.
There’s potential good news for what industry executives call “comfortwear” — sleepwear, at-homewear, activewear and spa-related items. Consumers want to spend more time at home, and products that can be worn or used around the house will be in big demand.
Initially, consumers will take comfort in trusted brands that are entrenched in the American psyche.
Executives and observers also feel consumers will be more aware of a corporation’s accountability and its ethical practices, and will most likely equate higher standards, as well as the sensitivity of a marketing message, with a brand’s identity.
Marc Gobe, president of Desgrippes Gobe Group, a communications firm specializing in retailing, and author of “Emotional Branding,” a book that examines “the new paradigm for connecting brands with people,” stated: “What Osama Bin Laden has done was more than just an attack on the nation — he attacked the emotional brand of the United States, which is America. America symbolizes and crystallizes all of the values, freedom and opportunities that are valued by everyone in the world. America is the quintessential brand.”
Gobe added: “I don’t think consumers will discriminate brands by their origin. They will buy brands that share what people are feeling in their hearts and will look upon them as partners. The brands that will show compassion will win the consumer. But consumers will discriminate against brands that are not considered good citizen brands. Some companies and brands will be opportunistic and will not be sensitive enough to how people are feeling.”
Steven R. McCracken, president of DuPont’s Apparel & Textile Sciences division, said he believes the recent incidents will be a factor in the “decision hierarchy of consumers” when it comes to buying products regarded as all-American. He said: “Garments produced in the U.S. have such a low share now, it will be difficult to leverage. Perhaps ‘Made of U.S. Materials’ would have some incremental retail value, as it emotionally links and has critical mass via CBI [Caribbean Basin Initiative] and NAFTA.”
“Advertising, promotion and garment-sourcing mentalities will need reevaluation. Intimacy, personal closeness, trust and other factors in related dimensions may make the grass look greener on this side of the fence, the local side, for a while. The basic forces that shape our industry have not changed — the changes are in the perspectives, or incremental elements that impact the competitive dynamics within the macrobrands.”
Charles L. Nesbit, president and chief executive officer of Sara Lee Intimate Apparel, said: “Clearly, merchandise that incorporates flag design and color is very popular today, as people try to outwardly communicate their patriotism. With respect to any long-term, buy-America trend in apparel purchases, I am skeptical. Over the last 20 years, the vast majority of the American public has consistently looked for value in apparel purchases. As a result, almost all of the modest-to-lower-priced apparel the majority of Americans purchase is produced outside the country, where labor costs are significantly lower.”
Nesbit said he is hopeful there will be a preference for American icon brand names, such as Hanes and Playtex, however, he said, “in the end, I perceive most shoppers will continue to look for fashion and value within a range of brands that deliver the quality she expects.”
However, Nesbit cautioned that should the U.S. enter into a lengthy battle against terrorism that continues to claim civilian and military casualties, consumers are very likely to become more aware of the source of products and may begin eliminating products from consideration because of the source.
“I would expect manufacturers to do the same,” he said.
Eric Wiseman, vice president of the VF Global Intimate Apparel Coalition at VF Corp., stated: “I think there will be some consumers looking for American products, but we continue to see people who are looking for great value and also for a lot of products that are symbolic of America. Before Sept. 11, not many consumers were looking for a ‘Made in America’ label. I do think there might be some backlash against countries that support terrorism.”
Michael Fitzgerald, president and ceo of Delta USA, the American unit of Tel-Aviv-based Delta Galil, said: “Bush has made this a global initiative against terrorism and I think there will be some discrimination against countries who do not participate in Bush’s coalition.”
Tom Ward, president and ceo of Maidenform, said all consumers are concerned today about the tragedy that has occurred.
“Because of this, Americans will relate more to American products,” Ward said. “With this in mind, we feel no company has a better relationship with the consumer than Maidenform, a true American brand. We therefore expect to see a positive attitude toward our brand.”
Jim Noble, senior vice president of merchandising and general manager of the Jockey brand at Jockey International, said: “When you get down to the folks who live outside of the big cities, a long-established American brand like Jockey is meaningful — it offers a comfort zone. When things get tough for any reason, consumers go back to traditional items, especially underwear.”
Regarding the mind-set of the American shopper, Carol R. Gee, global director of apparel brands at DuPont’s Apparel & Textile Sciences unit, said: “The consumer will probably react like a mother hen, a tougher cookie who is much tougher in her resolve. The psyche of the consumer will be interesting to watch. What it’s all about is the consumer, and if we collectively don’t take care of her, she can turn it off or turn it on.
“Brands are not bulletproof, but through turbulent times consumers are resilient,” said Donald Franschesini, former ceo of Playtex Apparel. “As long as a product and a brand delivers the expectations that are understandable to consumers — whether it’s Coca-Cola, Hershey, Playtex or Tampax — the consumer will continue to buy it.”