Every company has a story to tell. Glossy ads, marketing copy, websites, blogs, Twitter feeds, all of it aimed at creating a very specific impression of the brand. Paradoxically, ours is an industry that chases technology at the same time it basks in its sepia-toned heritage. A bike, component, or apparel maker who can bridge the gap between the two is destined for success.
And more than materials, most of which are common across product categories, provenance is perhaps the clearest shorthand for what a company is about. Campagnolo, that company founded on the back of a lost bike race and new invention (the quick release skewer), embodies what it is to be Italian, the melding of the aesthetic with the practical. For decades Campy’s graceful swooping lines and Italian bonafides have kept riders coming back, even at high cost, even when Shimano was doing everything better and cheaper. To Campy riders, the product and the provenance were inseparable, which is why Campagnolo are still making their components in Italy (and Eastern Europe), rather than the Far East.
The modern way, of course, is to research and design a new product, a jacket for example, in the market into which it will be sold. Numerous companies in the US and Western Europe maintain robust R&D groups in their homes countries. But then manufacturing happens in the Far East. When labor and materials cost roughly 10% of what they do in the target markets, outsourcing production makes good financial sense, although it plays hell with the provenance of the product. It changes the story.
If the short-term fiscal gain of outsourcing production proves too tempting for most, one question the industry hasn’t yet answered is whether that divorce between design and production makes a long-term difference. And part of the reason we don’t have an answer to the question is that most of the companies manufacturing in the Far East are still telling the stories they founded themselves on. They believe they can be coy about where their stuff is made. In the States, the law mandates a MADE IN XX tag on most products, but that’s not story-telling, that’s just compliance. In Italy, the standards for establishing “Made in Italy”-ness are so loose today that taking a product made elsewhere and placing it in a box, in Italy, will just about qualify.
The new stories are mostly about the design and technology of the product, not where it’s made. So we see a nylon rain jacket made in China retailing in the U.S. for over $250. None of the advertising for the garment mentions Asia. Instead it portrays hardened Europeans perched on the side of Alpen cols. It hits on the heritage of cycling, not on the reality of high-volume, contract production, even if it maybe sells short the skilled workers who make those jackets. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, we are told.
There are Chinese and Taiwanese craftspeople capable of the same quality work that their European or American counterparts produce. It is possible to manage a manufacturing process that effectively melds cutting edge design by passionate and experienced engineers, with low cost materials and labor, to produce a good product. In fact, the best monocoque carbon fiber frames being turned out in Asia are better than anything being made in the U.S. by the same method. They have the tools. They have the expertise.
And you know that there are good stories to tell about the technology, quality and methodology the industry’s Asian design partners bring to the game. It would be tempting to say there is a cultural bias working against these stories getting out, a covert racism, but the truth is it’s about the money.
It is hard to determine the value of a product without knowing the whole story. Are we paying for one talented designer and a slick marketing campaign, or is the thing in my hands actually very costly to make? The same jacket, from the previous example, also gets made in Italy by a different company. The price is roughly the same. Does being made in Italy, as advertised, increase its value?
You could argue (I have) that people and places find their way into the products they make in ways seen and unseen, measurable and immeasurable. So, even if it’s just a feeling, I believe that it’s ok to place a premium on the provenance of a thing. I want to know who the man behind the curtain is.
I realize that I am, perhaps, in the minority here. To a wide swathe of cyclists, the price is what matters, and as long as the products conform to their expectations, they see no problem. My issue remains, if you’re not willing to tell me where and how you make it, how can I validate what you want me to pay for it? If you’re telling me it’s the finest Italian design, I don’t expect ash from Mt Vesuvius embedded in the finish or a faint smell of Parmagiano-Reggiano, but I do expect that an Italian sensibility informed every aspect of its production, even if I can’t tell you exactly what that means.
In the absence of being able to test every product in advance of buying it, I rely on the story when I put my money down. I can tell you that I will NOT pay north of $250 for a nylon jacket made in China for the simple fact that I know it didn’t cost more than $50 to make. The same is true of a $5000 carbon frame. I don’t dispute the quality of the thing, but I do resent not having the cost inform the price. When I buy a jacket/bike/derailleur, I don’t want to buy a million magazine ads and a pro team sponsorship. The story is important, but I shouldn’t have to pay for it, and telling misleading or incomplete stories to part me from my cash isn’t the way to make me a long-term customer.
We don’t hear more about Asian manufacturing because those stories drive down prices. They make it harder to differentiate one frame coming out of a factory from another. The net effect is a lot more dollars spent on marketing. Telling a different story.
I want to be able to connect to the products I buy, just the way I want to be able to connect to the people I have in my life. Provenance is a way to connect. It lends authenticity. It fills in the gaps in an ongoing conversation, but it’s also a way to validate the price you’re paying for the thing in your hands, no matter where it came from.
In a very real way, Italy spoke to the world through Campagnolo and the myriad frame builders who turned out steel frames throughout the twentieth-century. We have this thick sense of Italian cycling, of French cycling, of British cycling, of Belgian cycling, and the bike industry is keen to exploit the richness of that sense to sell us stuff. But that’s mostly veneer. Like Italy before, Asia is speaking to us now, but the companies who sell their wares are only letting them lip-synch.
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