Perception Gaps


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Domestic automakers have a problem. OK, they have quite a few problems, but one of their main problems is this: they’re making better vehicles, but American consumers don’t seem to know or care about it.

According to author Roger Simmermaker, who espouses his economic nationalism on both a web site (www.howtobuyamerican.com) and in books and other publications, there’s a serious lack of recognition on the part of consumers that the quality of at least some vehicles produced by U.S. manufacturers is now on a par with or better than that of Japanese and other international rivals.

Simmermaker points out that models from both Ford and General Motors have outpaced Japanese models in quality surveys for the past couple of years. In 2005, he says, Chevrolet’s Impala beat the Camry in one of the well-known quality surveys. Similarly, Consumer Reports magazine ranked both the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan higher than the Camry and the Honda Accord in 2006, he adds.

Yet the perception of many American car buyers remains that Japanese quality is unassailable, and the quality of vehicles from domestic automakers is not quite up to the standard set by Toyota, Honda and other overseas manufacturers.

Simmermaker points out that the quality reputation of Toyota in particular may not be totally earned. He says the company recalled more vehicles than it sold in the United States in 2005, but coverage of the story in the mainstream media was lacking.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2005 Toyota recalled 2.38 million vehicles in the United States and sold 2.26 million.

Toyota managers cite a number of reasons for the increase in recalls. One factor is the company’s recent strategy to use components in a wider range of vehicles to save costs. If a shared component is found to be defective, it can impact several vehicles sold around the world and cause recall numbers to skyrocket. The company has also been making increasing use of computer-aided design and simulation tools to speed vehicle design. The result has been faster product development with fewer prototypes—and an increasing number of problems in the field.

In contrast, Simmermaker says, domestic automakers continue to invest in research and development, vehicle design and manufacturing capability, and get very little credit from consumers for their efforts. He believes GM and Ford pour more money into existing U.S. manufacturing facilities than foreign automakers spend on new plants, and are still accused of not being “competitive” enough. And, he adds, Japanese and other transplant automakers almost invariably gain huge tax breaks from local and state authorities when they site a new plant. That’s not usually the case when domestic automakers invest million to upgrade an existing facility.

“Perhaps someday the American media will give GM and Ford the credit they deserve,” Simmermaker writes. “And once they do, perception among the majority of the American public will rightfully change. GM and Ford aren’t only doing what they should to make gains in the American market to deserve American consumer loyalty; they’re also doing what they should to make gains in the markets of China, Europe and across most of the rest of the globe.”

In many ways, the U.S. finishing industry finds itself in a position similar to that of domestic automakers. Finishing technology—whether the product is plated, coated with an organic finish or receives some combination—is resulting in products that look better and last longer than ever before. Environmental friendliness and worker safety have been substantially improved in the bargain. Still, most consumers are oblivious, taking the finish on their products for granted until a problem happens.

The finishing process itself is similarly ignored. Finishing job shops and manufacturers fly under the radar unless or until they have an environmental or safety issue. At that point the mainstream media jump on with both feet and negative perceptions of the industry are reinforced.

How to address this perception gap—or, if it can be addressed—is a topic that should concern us all. Certainly having a single organization to represent the industry and help it to speak with a single, more insistent voice will help. But, short of a television ad campaign along the lines of the one launched by the American Plastics Council a few years ago, it’s going to be tough to educate and enlighten the average consumer regarding the importance of the industry.