Where Manufacturers and Customers Don't See Eye-to-Eye

Oct. 1, 2013

Is your company innovative, obsessed with quality and environmentally conscious? According to a new poll, consumers may not be giving you the credit you think you deserve.

Underwriters Laboratories (UL) released its third annual study, “The Product Mindset,” that examines the ways manufacturers and consumers think about and value products and the ways they are produced. The study polled respondents in the United States, China, India, Germany and Brazil.

While the two groups are aligned on many issues, they also display some important differences. For example:

Quality: Both manufacturers and consumers rank quality as the most important driver in their decisionmaking. While 95% of manufacturers believe product quality is very important, just over half (51%) of consumers believe manufacturers use the lowest-cost materials for their products.

Innovation: Manufacturers ranked innovation as the second most important priority, with 91% saying it is becoming more important. But consumers ranked innovation as number seven, and 63% said manufacturers introduce new products more quickly than consumers need them.

Environment: The UL study identified the environment as one of seven “rising priorities” for manufacturing decisionmaking. Both manufacturers and consumers ranked it as the second most important. But while 90% of manufacturers say the environment is becoming more important, 40% of consumers say manufacturers are not doing enough in terms of developing environmentally friendly manufacturing procedures or products.

Manufacturers and consumers were also out of synch when it came to their perceptions about the impact of products on human health. Some 87% of manufacturers agree that consumers are becoming more interested in the potential health impact of products. However, 39% of consumers say manufacturers are not providing all the important health information they should about their products. Some of that gap may be attributable to the fact that 61% of manufacturers think impact to the environment is more important than the impact to human health; for consumers, it is just the opposite – 61% think impact to human health is more important than to the environment.

Consumer distrust of manufacturers plays out in their attitudes toward regulation. While 86% of manufacturers feel that they are strongly regulated, 74% of consumers say manufacturers should be more stringently regulated. This is felt must acutely in China, where 92% of consumers want more governmental regulation, while 88% of Chinese manufacturers already feel stringently regulated.

Fueled by mobile communications and social media, word about product failures or recalls spreads with lightning speed. “If you have a recall because of an event that impacted people’s health in one part of the world, it becomes a known entity in all parts of the world,” said Suzanne Lavin, a UL vice president and the executive editor of the study. “A lot of consumers feel that regulation is a way to protect them from these sorts of events.”

Lavin said concerns about products rise with product intimacy, so consumers are more concerned about products they ingest or that affect their children.

While quality issues arise with many products, Lavin said manufacturers may be suffering from a perception problem resulting from a failure to communicate sufficiently with consumers about what they are doing to ensure quality.

“We know that manufacturers are complying with a lot of regulations. They are building quality products and doing a lot of product safety testing,” said Lavin. “What we see in the research is maybe they are not communicating what they are doing enough.” More effective communication, she said, could help manufacturers differentiate themselves from rivals and provide competitive advantage.

Despite some of the gaps, the UL study found rising consumer confidence that product quality is improving, and modest growth in the percentage of manufacturers (16% in 2013 versus 13% in 2012) who said it is easier to be profitable today. That belief was more prevalent in Germany and the U.S. than the other countries studied.

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