You had to beat a Datsun with a stick to make it stop running: Ben Seabird NZ: Datsun Bluebird Driven by Ross Melhop (CC BY-ND 2.0)

A tale of two brands

Not so long ago the words Made in Japan and Japanese could be used interchangeably. When used to refer to manufactured goods, they meant practically the same thing. Not anymore.

When the Japanese emerged from the rubble of World War II, Made in Japan stood for shoddy products, like toys that fell apart.

Then Japanese manufacturers learned quality control methods from W. Edwards Deming, a curmudgeonly professor of statistics at New York University. Deming had been invited to Japan to conduct seminars for corporate executives in 1950. He found them willing to listen and eager to learn.

Deming (1900–1993) had grown up dirt poor in a tar-paper shack in Sioux City, Iowa. He earned a doctorate in mathematical physics at Yale before he went on to become the most famous statistician of his generation.

Deming had a rigorous approach to quality control. His method was (if you’ll pardon a huge oversimplification) to keep a careful tally of the number of product defects. He figured out what caused them, fixed the problems, measured how much the quality improved after that, and then keep refining the manufacturing process to get it as close to zero-defect perfection as possible.

By the 1970s and 1980s, Japanese manufacturers had mastered Dr. Deming’s methods well enough to capture huge swathes of the U.S. market for everything from automobiles to cameras and consumer electronics.

Word-of-mouth advertising helped: Over time, people noticed that those boxy little cars from Datsun (now Nissan) were built so tough, you practically had to beat them with a stick to make them stop running. And so they talked about them.

I wasn’t an early convert to anything made in Japan myself, especially not cars. I had always been a believer in American iron.

I bought a used 1978 Chevy Nova that never gave me any trouble, and I expected all American cars to run that good. But then I bought my first lemon, and then my second and my third.

I had a run of bad luck with a Cadillac, a Chevy Malibu and finally a Ford Taurus that died of catastrophic transmission failure before I could finish paying for it.

I’d also had problems with American rental cars on road trips, and had become disenchanted with U.S. automobile brands.

It was finally time to take that big step and risk buying a Japanese car. I’ve never had cause to regret it: My 1990 Mazda Miata had a little over 328,000 miles (492,000 kilometers) on its odometer and was still running good when I donated it to a charitable organization in Santa Cruz, California.

My little red Miata would have ended up with a lot more miles on it if I hadn’t also clocked 209,000 miles (334,400 kilometers) on my 1997 BMW Z3. (To digress at length: yes, I fell for the German engineering line, although I must admit that BMW’s advertising is no longer quite so arrogantly off-putting as it used to be when the account was handled by Ammirati & Puris, a creative boutique that, through a series of mergers and acquisitions, has since disappeared without a trace. Back in the 1980s the BMW print ads used to read like they’d been written by angry little men in bowties. I have no way of proving this, but I could have sworn those ads gave BMW owners a bad attitude and subtly influenced their road manners. It was almost as if they’d drive their overpriced little cars, thinking, “Get out of my way — can’t you see I’m driving a BMW?”).

Anyway, back to Japan: These days not all Japanese products are made in Japan. Japanese automobiles, cameras and consumer electronic products are manufactured all over the world, including the U.S.

And there’s mounting anecdotal evidence that that has had adverse effects on the perceived quality of Japanese products. Some Japanese cars, for instance, have been found to have so many glitches that they’ve slipped in J.D. Power consumer satisfaction surveys. So what does this augur for Japanese brands down the road?

Ultimately it comes down to the question of a brand’s provenance. Will U.S. consumer perceptions change? Will customers eventually learn to distinguish between products that are actually manufactured in Japan and those that are Japanese in the sense that they are Japanese brands manufactured in other countries? Anecdotal evidence tells me it already has.

Steve Jobs admired Sony, the Japanese consumer electronics giant. He even featured Akito Morita, Sony’s founder, in Apple’s Think Different ad campaign. But Apple beat Sony at its own game, and replaced it as the maker of gotta-have-it consumer electronics (disclosure: I was a writer at Apple for ten years).

These days Apple products are made in China, but Steve Jobs found a way around that pesky little detail: Etched into all Apple hardware products and accessories are the magic words, “Designed by Apple in California.” Apple has the to-die-for cachet that other brands would give anything to have. And brand California has eclipsed brand Japan.

Copyright © 2015 David Graham.

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