The challenge of quantifying pocketbook patriotism 

Having worked heavily with marketing research for more than 30 years, I know just how useful it can be to make better business decisions, but like all tools there are limitations. One very important issue with marketing research is that we often measure peoples’ attitudes, but what we really care about is their behavior. In some cases, there is a very close link between the two and sometime not so much. Let’s consider two examples.

As our first case we want to understand what people put on their hamburgers. We could ask them a very straightforward question and give them a list of condiments from which to select. Since there is no acceptable answer, people are very likely to give you good information. Were we to check, we would likely find an almost perfect correspondence to what people said in the survey and what ends up on their burger. Why say you use ketchup in the survey if you don’t?

Now let’s take a different case and ask people if they are willing to pay more for a plumbing part if it came in a package made from recycled materials. Here the respondent may consider that there may be a socially acceptable answer. If I care about our world, certainly I should be willing to pay more for that recycled packaging. This bias toward the socially acceptable answer can yield market research information that is much more optimistic about the sale potential of products with recycled packaging materials.

A good example of this type of issue was faced when the Home Improvement Research Institute (HIRI) decided to look at green benefits in some depth. HIRI made sure to get a profile of respondent attitudes toward green, but also to look at the green behaviors they have exhibited. As expected, there was a good-sized group of respondents who talked a good green game, but didn’t walk the walk.

While we may get inflated answers, we can track trends over time. In fact, The Futures Company does regular tracking of consumer attitudes on a broad range of issues. Since 2007 it has been examining the dimensions of what it means to be a good citizen today — including buying products made in the USA. As one might expect there was a clear rise in this measure as the economy weakened, with the selection rising from 60% in 2007 to 70% in 2009. But as the economy improved slowly in 2010, the rating fell to 61%.

Does this all mean that “Made in the USA” lacks marketing value? Clearly that is not the case. It just means that one needs to be careful when interpreting the absolute values in this type of research results and also not to rely on this attribute as a sole purchase motivator. With the current economic problems and unemployment, there is no doubt a desire to buy American when possible. As with most things, some people will see the benefit of buying American to be worth more trade-offs than others. If product quality and price are competitive, then the “Made in the USA” label can be the deciding factor. 

My recommendations would be for American manufacturers to make their products as attractive as possible, with “Made in the USA” a bonus. While we work in a global economy, there is no problem rooting for the home team. 

A 23-year industry veteran, Fred Miller is the managing director of the Home Improvement Research Institute (HIRI). He can be reached at