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What Aren’t Manufacturers And Customers Telling Each Other?

Wed, 12/04/2013 - 11:01am
Joel Hans, Managing Editor, Manfuacturing.net

A few months back, UL released its Product Mindset survey, which takes a dramatically different look at the relationship between manufacturers and consumers. Many manufacturers are aware that they need to continuously develop, produce and sell products that consumers want, but there seems to be a large disconnect between what manufacturers perceive as consumer demand, and what the case actually is. UL seems to believe that these trends, which may have otherwise gone unnoticed, could be a barrier between companies that succeed and those that don’t.

Keith Williams, chief executive officer, UL, said, “The Product Mindset is the only global study of its kind and is an important tool for our customers. Our research provides insight into what we believe is a tremendous opportunity for businesses in the coming years. For example, in better understanding gaps in priorities, manufacturers can uncover new ways to engage consumers in a dialogue around how their products are made and sourced to provide greater peace of mind.”

That’s a sentiment Suzanne Lavin, the study’s executive editor, agrees with, adding: “The purpose of Product Mindset is to help our customers really understand how consumers think and feel about product, and the impact that can have on the distribution of their products worldwide.”

At its core, the survey aims to track two key concerns: “fundamentals,” which consumers see as critical to their purchasing decisions, and “rising priorities,” which are categories of thought that manufacturers should stay aware of, in case they transition into critical importance. Lavin says that both of these categories, but especially the rising priorities, can help companies prepare their products, and the way they conduct business, to align with future fundamental concerns.

On a broad note, the study found that consumer respect for manufacturers jumped 10 percent between 2012 and 2013, on increased awareness and a more fully-formed relationship. This could be related to the confidence in quality, which has also jumped 10 percent in the last two years.

The bulk of the survey is the chart below, which outlines the most important concerns for manufacturers and consumers, and the areas most in need of improvement. It’s not difficult to see that quality is both important and in need of more improvement, both in the minds of consumers and manufacturers. But the divergences are more interesting, and more potentially useful for manufacturers seeking guidance on future directions to lead their businesses.

The obvious leader in both the importance and improvement categories, and among both consumers and manufacturers, is quality. Break down into that category a bit, however, and the more interesting data comes to light. 95 percent of manufacturers believe product quality is critical, but 51 percent of consumers believe manufacturers use the lowest-cost materials for their products, regardless of quality. Lavin says that the reality of this situation—if manufacturers or consumers are correct—isn’t actually addressed in the study, because the perception is most important. It’s a signal to manufacturers that they could be doing more work in talking about the quality of their materials, or simply the work they put into creating a quality product, in order to help close the gap.

In addition to that, Lavin says, “There are different perceptions based on where a product is made. Consumers, globally, feel that products out of the developed markets are of higher quality than those out of the developing markets.” 60 percent of consumers thought a product made from Germany was high in quality, while 26 percent of consumers thought a Brazil- or China-made product in the same way. Clearly, a manufacturer who brings manufacturing back to the U.S. from a country like China could see a bump in the perception of quality, and help close that gap.

One of the more compelling categories within the UL study, although it’s within the “rising priorities” section, is the difference in perception between impact on the environment, and impact on human health. In the study, 61 percent of manufacturers agreed that their impact to the environment is more important than their impact to human health—consumers thought exactly the opposite, with the exact same proportion.

Lavin says, “What we learned is that when manufacturers think about environmentally-driven products, they think about it as it relates to impact to the environment. What will it do to our planet? While consumers are thinking about what it's going to do to their human health and the human health of their children and their family. We're seeing very different priorities when it comes to sustainability.”

The study shows that 87 percent of manufacturers agree that consumers are becoming more interested in the health impact a given product might impart on its users, which would suggest a great deal of awareness and effort already being placed toward that area of concern. But the UL study also found that 39 percent of consumers think manufacturers don’t provide all the crucial health impact information, which proves a wide gap in perceptions. Certainly, the study proves manufacturers could be doing a great deal more in getting the word out about their concern over health.

Essentially, manufacturers are talking about reducing emissions, but consumers are worried about what kinds of chemicals are in the products, and how those chemicals might affect them or their family. Lavin adds, “The more intimate a consumer is with a product, the more they're safety concerns are.” To food & beverage companies, or medical device manufacturers, this could be particularly critical.

The study found that when it comes to food or items used by children, more than 60 percent are greatly concerned with the human safety element, while devices that are merely touched, like a smartphone, only concern roughly 20 percent of consumers. That difference, especially considering the associated gap between the perception of informing consumers of the potential impacts, could equate to huge issues in the coming years if human health does, indeed, become a fundamental purchasing condition.

The UL study is rife with other interesting discrepancies between what manufacturers think, their assumptions about consumer preferences and what consumers actually think. Companies that are selling directly to consumers would be best-off taking a glance through the survey’s results to see what how their thoughts on current consumer-level trends actually compare to the real buying world. The bigger that difference, the more at-risk your company could be when it comes to emerging and future consumer trends. We’ve already seen plenty of examples of companies fall into that unstoppable downfall — Research in Motion, maker of BlackBerry smartphones, is one recent and notable example. And one can’t easily forget how close the Big 3 came to complete failure during the Great Recession.

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