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U.S. manufacturing: is perception trumping reality?

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I saw a speaker recently who led the audience through a stunning experiment on the power of marketing.

He asked who had been born in 1972 or later, and about half the people raised their hands. Then he recounted the history of the TV show, "The Beverly Hillbillies," which aired the last of its 274 episodes in 1971.

Still, when the speaker asked the crowd how the show began, everyone knew and began singing, "Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed. Poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed..."

The show hasn't aired a new episode in more than 40 years, yet everyone knows the song. That's the power of marketing.

The speaker gave his next clue: "Melts in your mouth."

"Not in your hands," the audience responded in unison. That advertising jingle for M&M's was created in 1954. That's the power of marketing to influence perceptions.

So what is the perception of U.S. manufacturing? My sense is it isn't good.

Does this sound familiar? We don't make anything. We badly trail the Chinese. American workers lack skills and work ethic. Manufacturing is a dead-end job in a dying field.

I've been studying the manufacturing world pretty closely the past six weeks and none of these statements is true. It's been surprising to see how much good news is flowing from the factory sector. Aren't we still a recovering economy?

Take the 24-hour period from Monday to Tuesday, for example. Here are three headlines I retweeted:

These are fairly normal headlines I get on a daily basis from the manufacturing sources I follow. In fact, I did a recent blog post with stats showing a 24 percent increase in manufacturing jobs lost during the recession, and a 38 percent increase in manufacturing exports year over year.

The manufacturing news is good, folks. Now about that perception. If you think it doesn't really matter, consider this: Our speaker asked which car holds its value better, Cadillac or Mercedes.

The latter carmaker spent millions convincing the public that Mercedes is the value pick. It is a perception that Cadillac, which actually has a better resale value, cannot undo.

Another reason perception matters: A Deloitte Global Manufacturing Industry group study found that manufacturing ranks last as a career choice among 18-to-24-year-olds.

The National Association of Manufacturing realizes that perceptions influence reality. And it is trying to do something about it.

The organization created a 2-minute YouTube video asking the question, "What does manufacturing mean to you?" The results are a humbling look at America at work.

NAM is tweeting the videos with the tagline, "Watch this video to see why #manufacturing in America is making a comeback."

I would argue it never left.

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