LOS ANGELES -- The good news for beleaguered U.S. manufacturers: Americans believe "Made in the USA" stands for quality and value. The bad news: Consumers -- especially young adults entering their prime buying years and richer households who have money -- aren't inclined to look for products made at home.
These are among the findings from the American Demographics Perception Study, a new consumer survey on topics from Chinese goods to Wal-Mart's image.
It turns out to be a generally favorable report card for American manufacturers and brands. The online survey of 1,133 adults, fielded in late May by Aegis Group's Synovate, shows consumers tend to respect the quality and value of U.S.-made goods, and they rank the quality of domestic auto brands in a tie for second (even with Japan, close behind German brands).
American-made goods and car brands tend to have a downward economic skew, getting the best marks from poorer and less-educated consumers. Adults who have a high school diploma or live in households with income below $25,000 put U.S. car quality tops in the world, and they're most likely to seek out "Made in USA" products in everyday shopping.
Southern car buyers buy U.S.
Comparing attitudes across regions of the country, Southerners gave the highest-quality grade to domestic cars and were slightly more likely than residents of other regions to scope out U.S. consumer goods.
In a boost for Detroit, some of the highest grades for domestic car quality came from adults age 18-24, an appealing group to bring into the fold. But this may be more of a problem than an opportunity. In the study, young adults were least likely to own U.S. cars and most likely to drive Japanese makes.
Young adults, with a more worldly brand view, also were among the most likely to say cars from China will come to U.S. shores sooner than later. The consensus among adults was they will arrive in 15 years. But the younger, the richer and the more educated expect to see Chinese vehicles sooner than that.
Tough to change perceptions
The survey illustrates the challenges of turning around negative perceptions. Korean auto leader Hyundai, for example, has made great strides in quality, winning high marks from J.D. Power & Associates and Consumer Reports. Yet consumers of all ages, incomes and education levels gave Korea the lowest marks for car quality.
Similarly, Korea's Samsung and LG have invested heavily in product design and advertising to move their brands up market. Yet Samsung tied for sixth in consumer-electronics innovation -- and LG came in 13th out of 14 brands listed in the survey, ahead of Apex Digital (which is more of a price point than a brand). In the survey, consumers associated "Made in Korea" with sub-par quality, even with "Made in China."
But investments by Samsung and LG show signs of paying off. True, Sony ranks No. 1 in consumer-electronics innovation across all age groups -- probably payoff for past successes rather than anything on the shelves currently. However, the best grades based on consumers' age for both Samsung and LG come from the youngest adults (18-24). Among consumers categorized by household income, LG scores best with the richest households ($75,000-plus). These are signs of emerging brands connecting with the right consumers.
Dell's remarkable evolution
The big consumer-electronics story, though, may be Dell's remarkable brand evolution. Dell built its image assembling value-priced PCs, offering the computer equivalent of the Model T (any computer as long as it's black). Yet in this survey, Dell ranked No. 2 behind Sony in consumer-electronics innovation -- far ahead of No. 5 Apple, creator of the celebrated iPod, even though Dell's main innovation is selling flat-panel TVs on the cheap.
Consumers could offer some advice to personal-finance programs on TV and radio: They don't believe what they see and hear. Across demographics, consumers scored those media at or near the bottom as sources of trustworthy and objective information on investing. Among other media, personal-finance and business magazines did best, ahead of financial Web sites and newspapers. Those magazines did especially well in affluent households, ranking behind only financial advisers and friends/family as trusted sources.
Financial advisers with brokerage, insurance and other financial-services firms ranked tops in credibility, suggesting consumers value the personal relationships of advisers who can draw on the resources of a large financial company. If there was any sign that consumers have been turned off by the Street's recurring scandals implicating many of those companies, it didn't come through in the survey.
True or false: Wal-Mart has the lowest prices in town; Walmart.com beats Amazon.com in online prices; Wal-Mart is a fine corporate citizen? Absolutely true, according to the consensus of this survey.
The richer and more educated consumers are, the more they believe in Wal-Mart's online rival, Amazon.com. College graduates and households making $50,000-plus perceived Amazon as a better corporate citizen -- virtually virtuous -- than the giant from Bentonville. Survey respondents with graduate degrees were among the minority who thought Amazon's prices were lower than those at Walmart.com.
The poorer, less educated and older consumers are, the more they believe in the goodness of Wal-Mart. Adults with a high school diploma and adults age 65-plus gave Wal-Mart nearly as high a grade for "good corporate citizen" as for "lowest prices." Among regions, Wal-Mart's home base in the South gave it the highest honors for citizenship.
The retailer's reputation for good deals is hardly surprising. But its strong showing for good deeds indicates that, despite the bad press garnered over some of its alleged business practices, Wal-Mart still has the strong support of its base.