Carpetbagging in Detroit
26 February 2015
I am not from Detroit.
I grew up in Michigan. As you can imagine, growing up in Michigan isn't synonymous with growing up in Detroit. I want that to be clear before I dive into what I deem as an intriguing topic for Detroiters, Michiganders, Shinola enthusiasts, marketing nerds and all those curious.
Weeks ago I stumbled upon a year-old passionate account of Shinola, the luxury-goods company, and their branding and marketing tactics written by Jon Moy. The piece completely locked me up in moral limbo. I suggest you read his thoughts on Shinola before you read on.
Jon Moy's words made me wonder is Shinola wrongfully carpetbagging? A term historically used to label opportunism, exploitation and manipulation by outsiders, carpetbagging seems to align with Moy's sentiments on Shinola. And I think he makes a sound argument as to why. But let's explore this a little - one year later.
In his piece, Moy claims that Shinola's press kit should be full of asterisks. Why? Two reasons. Shinola's main products are not manufactured in Detroit - in fact, many of the parts (but not all) are manufactured overseas. And Shinola is not a Detroit company. Moy states, "All of these asterisks wouldn't be necessary except that Shinola's entire presence is predicated on its ties to the City of Detroit." Even Shinola's logo includes the name Detroit in most instances.
Shinola's main products are not manufactured in Detroit - in fact, many of the parts are manufactured overseas.
After observing Shinola for a year, their brand narrative claims their products are:
High-quality and Durable (made from fine materials and assembled with care)
Authentic (each product is unique and original)
Made in Detroit
The last bullet stands out amongst everything else. What does that mean?
Made in Detroit.
Here are the facts: Shinola watch bands are made in Largo, FL by Hadley-Roma, their bicycle frames are manufactured in Waterford, WI, and their watch parts are manufactured overseas. Their movement components are produced by Ronda AG in Switzerland and their cases, dials, hands, crystals, buckles and nylon straps are all manufactured in China or Japan. What's actually made in Detroit?
Most Shinola products, however, are assembled in Detroit by skilled craftspeople. They explain their approach on their website:
“It’s why we are here [in Detroit]. Making an investment in skill, at scale. Creating a community that will thrive through excellence of craft and pride of work. Where we will reclaim the making of things that are made well. And define American luxury through American quality.”
It seems that Shinola is openly acknowledging that they are curating well-made individual product components from elsewhere then assembling superior Shinola products in the City of Detroit.
But then I peeked at their homepage and found that right above the heading Quality, their copy explicitly reads, "Made in Detroit."
To me, that's misleading.
What does "made" imply in this context? I suppose it could mean assembled in Detroit. Hmm, well let's look at "American-made" cars for a second as a reference point. Although American-made cars hold the label, the American Automobile Labeling Act states that the most American cars (the Chevrolet Express and the GMC Savana full-size vans) are made up of only 80% of American-manufactured parts. In contrast, the least American, "American-made" cars only contain 40% of American-manufactured parts. And just for kicks, the Toyota Tundra is made up of 75% American-manufactured parts.
These percentages blew my mind. Just think, this misleading, strategic label has led to signicant increases in automobile sales spanning decades. And Shinola is doing something very similar. 'Made in Detroit' implies that Shinola products are actually manufactured in Detroit - a city that is historically known for manufacturing quality.
'Made in Detroit' implies that Shinola products are actually manufactured in Detroit - a city that is historically known for manufacturing quality.
This is exactly where my problem lies. Although crafty, this messaging is ambiguous and provides a strategic advantage. By claiming their products are Made In Detroit, Shinola leads consumers into thinking that when they purchase Shinola products, they're also, as the New York Times put it, buying a small piece of the revival of a once-great American manufacturing city. Instead, Shinola is ironically offering customers a manufactured experience, creating the illusion that they are now supporters of Detroit's revival. And to a high degree, their offering is exaggerated for now.
But after digging for more copy on their website, I found that Shinola openly answers the FAQ Are all your products made in America? Here's what they say:
“Our hope is that we can cultivate a cottage industry of suppliers who will move their operations to Detroit in order to supply us with needed components. With hard work and collaboration, we believe we can establish ourselves as an iconic brand, while expanding the capacity—and reinvigorating the spirit—of manufacturing in America.”
So, essentially, it's expensive to manufacture these product parts in Detroit and Shinola will try to get their partners to move to Detroit in the future? Got it. Well, while I really hope there's some truth behind their supplier goals, that timeline seems to have no foreseeable deadline. The fact is, Shinola will not be selling 100% American-made watches and/or bikes anytime soon.
Now, in regards to Shinola being a Detroit company, this could be argued either way. Shinola has a huge assembly space and headquarters in Detroit (in GM's old Argonaut Building), employs over 300 Detroiters, and certainly pays taxes in Detroit. You tell me if they're a Detroit company.
Personally, I think the answer comes down to two types of ownership. Shinola is owned by Dallas-based Bedrock Manufacturing. And their ownership in regards to contributing to the City of Detroit is somewhat limited. So no, they aren't (yet) a Detroit company in my opinion. But I don't think that answer is invariable.
Brands, like Shinola, should be held accountable for their words and actions. Every word from Shinola's messaging has been framed to support a powerful vision. They owe Detroit for leveraging its historical manufacturing culture and its ongoing renaissance in order to build and grow a strong, emotion-backed consumer platform.
Fun fact: In 2014, Shinola donated four clocks to the City of Detroit including one at Eastern Market and opened a dog park in partnership with Midtown Detroit, Inc. I think Shinola critics like Moy have pushed Shinola to rethink their strategy and role as a company and occupant of Detroit. Detroiters won't stand for carpetbagging.
Despite all of the above criticism, I'd like to mention that I am an owner of a Shinola watch. For what's it worth, I find that their mission to deliver high-quality products to consumers is an ambitious one and I am very satisfied with my purchase.
But I know that my purchase is not directly supporting the revival of Detroit, just yet. As a Michigander at heart, I need to see Shinola clean up their messaging, take a more transparent approach to their branding in the immediate future, and ultimately contribute much more to Detroit than what the City of Detroit has already contributed to Shinola.