What consumer product comes to mind when you think of Vermont? Maple syrup, Cabot cheese, or Ben & Jerry’s, perhaps? If that's what comes up in a kind of consumer word association, marketing gurus would nod their heads knowingly.
A strong product is great, but if you don’t build a strong brand, it won't sell. How are businesses and policy makers branding Connecticut-made products?
The state is selling itself as a top destination for advanced manufacturing work. The competition is intense, however, and the northeast is not known for its competitive cost environment. Aerospace suppliers, for instance, compete with counterparts in Ohio, Alabama, and South Carolina.
What’s the differentiator? “What we’re known for is our additive manufacturing, our precision manufacturing, and more importantly how efficient we are,” said Anne Evans, district director at the U.S. Department of Commerce in Middletown. “The efficiency is what’s helping the supply chain make a name for ‘Made in Connecticut.’”
That supply chain is very decentralized, though, spread around thousands of small companies. How do they live up to the brand expectation? According to Bob Torrani, director of the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology’s Advanced Manufacturing Center in East Hartford, centralized help offered by organizations like CCAT is key to maintaining the state’s reputation.
As we walked around the shop floor, Torrani pointed to some of the high-tech work and research CCAT performs for local manufacturers who don’t have the capability or capacity. “Most of these small [and] medium-sized companies don’t necessarily have the in-house resources to explore what new technologies that are out there,” he said. “That’s what CCAT does. We look at what’s on the horizon. We vet the opportunities, and then we help companies internalize those advanced technologies so that they [can] continue to be competitive.”
Efficiency and cutting-edge technology may be indispensible to Made in Connecticut, but so is technical expertise. "A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person," said Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. "You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well."
That’s exactly what Dymotek Corp. in Ellington is trying to do. It brands itself as one of only about six companies in all of the U.S. with the capability to inject two or more very different materials, like plastic and silicone, into one mold. Here’s the catch: the materials shouldn’t mix, but they’ve got to get along.
Norm Forest, CEO, walked with me around the shop floor, explaining the process. "It’s very difficult," he said, "because you’re heating in one space, and cooling in a space that’s right next to it. To be able to pull it off in the same mold space is really the eureka piece."
Dymotek’s customers are bringing some of their manufacturing work back to the U.S. Forest said engineering capability is a major factor in the move, as are fuel costs, and poorly-enforced intellectual property laws in Asia. "The other piece," he said, "is that there’s been a high level of automation, and a high level of streamlining lean concepts, and so forth. We’re executing at a much higher level. When you take the high level of manual labor out of any component, it really almost becomes a wash. I mean, it will never be the same as offshore, but we can be a contender."
Dymotek ships products to more than 30 countries. Business increased by 60 percent last year. This year, it expects to grow by 40 percent with the addition of a second manufacturing facility in Somers to support the demand. Two years ago Dymotek had 50 employees. Today, that number is close to 130.
It's not just precision manufacturers who have made a mark outside Connecticut. Some consumer products are riding high on local demand.
At Modern Trousseau in Woodbridge, 20 seamstresses make custom bridal gowns designed by owner Callie Tein. The "buy local" movement, she said, is impacting sales. "There are brides that do search out dresses only made in the U.S.," she said. "They really want to support the industry. I sometimes get brides who live just around the corner, and they’re so excited to find out that their dress is being made here in Connecticut."
Modern Trousseau sells nearly 4,000 gowns a year at an average wholesale price of around $1,800 per gown. It has stores in Connecticut, New York, Nashville, and Charleston, and also in the U.K. and Japan, with plans to expand further.
To help get the word out to customers about Connecticut’s brand, Evans at the U.S. Department of Commerce is reaching out to all kinds of small and medium-sized local companies, from aerospace suppliers, to makers of maple syrup. She has led trade missions to promote "Made in Connecticut" exports to Israel, Australia, Germany, and China.
"We try to bring them to the most places," Evans said. "We just keep hitting. If you keep batting, you’re going to send it out of the park a few times. We’ve been hitting it out of the park, and we’re really proud of our Connecticut companies and how hard they work. We can lead the way, but they’ve got to make the hit."