ToyTalk owner and editor, David Smith, muses mission statements, Chinese production and how to challenge reputation in his column this month...
What do you think of when you see the phrase ‘Made in China’ on a toy? If you’re a consumer, your first thought may be of product recalls, and you may even think of a recent story about a Chinese manufacturer using ‘medical waste’ in toys, which is enough to make anyone shudder. It might even make you think twice about buying the toy in question.
It’s not fair, of course, because China is capable of producing excellent products, but this is a question of image, which is tricky.
Around 60 years ago, Japan had a similar image problem. Its products were seen as cheap, shoddily made and poor value. This especially applied to toys.
Today, Japanese products are seen as anything but shoddily made. Japan has an enviable reputation for making quality goods, often at the cutting edge of technology, and no parent would now see ‘Made in Japan’ on a toy and think it implied low production standards or poor-quality materials.
There’s a reason for this turnaround, and it’s not just down to the fact that Japan’s industries have improved over the years. The main reason is that Sony decided it was going to happen when it set out its company vision in 1950.
A company’s ‘vision’ is deeper than a mission statement. It embodies everything it is aiming for, and believes in. Vision statements are usually open-ended and often unattainable (after all, what’s the point of having a vision you can reach? Where do you go then?)
It’s easy to underestimate the importance of vision. It’s easy to claim that a company would have been successful even without one, but America would not have put a man on the moon if JFK hadn’t said they would do so eight years earlier, and Japanese products might not be at the top of the pile had Sony not decided it would become ‘the firm most known for changing the poor-quality image of Japanese products’.
The vision went on. ‘50 years from now, our brand name will be as well known as any in the world and will signify innovation and quality.’
It doesn’t sound like much in hindsight, but this was a breathtakingly ambitious goal. It doesn’t have the purity of Nike’s vision from the 1960s – ‘Crush Adidas’. It certainly doesn’t have the elegance of Henry Ford’s vision from the beginning of the last century – ‘Democratise the automobile’.
What it did, was declare that something apparently impossible was actually worth shooting for.
Today, China finds itself in the position Japan occupied 60 years ago. ‘Made in China’ is a phrase dogged by health scares and revelations of scandalous factory conditions. It’s tempting to think stricter guidelines, more regulation and improved standards are the answer to this, and they will obviously play their part – and product recalls will do their bit to hammer home the message.
But the most important thing might just be a Chinese company, one we probably haven’t even heard of yet, setting out a bold vision for its future, a future in which Chinese products are seen as among the best in the world, a future where ‘Made in China’ is a guarantee of quality.
It won’t happen overnight – Japan’s image problem continued well into the 1970s, after all – but it’s probably already happening.