Activewear Taps California Brand Cachet

Was Levi Strauss the founder of the California Look? For generations, clothiers who design with durable work, sports and leisure in mind have called California home. Ocean waves and mountain trails run through the California lifestyle, and local designers have formed a powerhouse brand cachet, for clothing and cars, too. Did you know that Nissan’s research and design beachhead in La Jolla designed the Altima, Maxima, Xterra, and Frontier, among others?

Some California-based activewear manufacturers are reviewing costs, time-to-market pressures and the need for skilled craftsmanship and deciding to “in-source” operations back to greater southern California. Rising wages and a strong yuan make China a less attractive production center, while infrastructure and quality issues make emerging Asian centers such as Vietnam less reliable in a quick-turn, trend-driven industry. Reuters recently reported on this trend, and noted a 6.5% increase in sector employment in the Los Angeles area alone. A sign that a home-grown industry’s manufacturing sector that long ago went East to lower costs, will head back home.  Despite California’s draconian tax and employment policies, the California Cachet and the state’s proven expertise in efficient and timely manufacturing are key competitive advantages.

At a family wedding last weekend, my old friend — a tireless entrepreneur — shared her plans to design, make and ship a new line of activewear from San Diego.  She knows that her affordable, stylish and durable products’ hang tags reading “Designed and Made in California, USA” will draw the attention of retail partners and savvy shoppers.  She’s channeling the guts and foresight of Levi Strauss.

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International Business Pre-Flight Checklist III

In 2 previous entries, I touched first on the need to Get Executive Thumbs-Up and then to Analyze Market Horizons. What’s Step 3 on the checklist? Prove Demand.

Is the destination worth the time and resources? There has to be tangible, measurable demand for your products and services in international markets, which signals long-term revenue growth, which you’ve already quantified in step 2’s analysis. Are your solutions able to reach new markets in their current or altered form, motivate local partners, win new revenue?

Here is where time spent at industry fairs in your target countries will pay off. While I encourage you to make friends with local distributors and brokers — they are great at local networking, and can introduce you to trusted resources in banking, legal and logistics circles — I advise against signing ANYTHING resembling a distribution agreement with them, exclusive or not, for the time being. It is just too soon to go steady, and you want to protect your goods and services from sandbagging by nefarious competitors or those who intend to steal your intellectual property. Sorry if I sound jaded here, but I’ve seen this scenario play out more than once.

While planning your trip, don’t forget to enlist the aid of the hard-working team at the US Department of Commerce Export Assistance Center near you. Though they work for Uncle Sam, these people think like entrepreneurs, have global-scale rolodexes, and act with the sense of urgency that business owners can appreciate. Their services, many at no cost, include access to in-market studies for your particular industry, ranging from political and regulatory obstacles down to current and forecasted market growth based upon point-of-sale data from retailers and world-class research. Put your tax dollars to work for your business!

At this step, companies very often make the strategic decision to split product lines down domestic vs. international lines. Feature sets that are vital to winning international revenue — multilingual interface, for instance — may be of negligible value to your domestic customers. And once this happens, be certain that your operations, accounting, and logistics functions can handle it. More on that in future entries.

Next installment on the list: Allocate Resources.

Socially-Aware Branding

“Brands belong to customers, not companies.” The authors of Groundswell posit that social networking phenomena have turned the tables on how brands are conceived, launched, and shepherded towards their intended customers. Readers are encouraged to view those ominous clouds looming on the horizon not as threatening hailstorms, but as promising abundant rainwater and bumper crops.

I recently advised a client to let his company’s reputation for personal service and quality craftsmanship make its own way into the social networking sphere. How? By gathering customer and prospect fans in such venues as Facebook. Let the good word on stellar service and top-rate products linger, in places where friends and families talk about everything from soccer tournaments (“silkscreened T-shirts, free delivery”) to prom dates (“buy one corsage, get one free”) to new blenders (“let’s pulverize Chuck Norris… if we dare”).

I’m especially gung-ho on this idea for providers of community-based goods and services, who can place calls to action that trail user social networkers of a certain age or affinity group or sports team who live within a slice of nearby zip codes. And that, dear friends, is why the latest Yellow Pages is about as hefty as my 8th grade yearbook.

Although your brand’s reputation roams far and wide online, you can still help shape its perceptions. Forrester Research (see Groundswell) reports that over 75% of online shoppers rely upon word-of-mouth endorsements. We fill virtual carts and book travel while hanging on the words of anonymous reviewers, as if they were yakking with us across the back fence. How do those vital ratings make it to e-tailer sites, you may ask? From the likes of companies such as the delightfully-named Bazaarvoice, who make tools that gather unbiased reviews seamlessly into any e-commerce page — yours or your retailers — wherein your products are displayed and sold.

I purchased Groundswell at Amazon because it was recommended by another marketing professional whom I trust, and because Amazon hinted that I might enjoy it. I then gave it a high five because it improves how I earn my living. Socially aware brand campaigns lead to high customer rankings and abundant business. Reap the harvest with the right tools!

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