Can't we all just get along? - Sam Setter's Limeblast

9 February 2016

Sam Setter has dispatched many a chosen target with his in-depth industry knowledge and sharp vitriol. Now, in his latest piece for Leather International, he chooses some wise words on branding and how the industry would work best by working together.

My articles have been published in Leather International without interruption from 1997 until this January/February issue 2016 and I have happily worked in great autonomy for three different editors who succeeded one another. This Limeblast is number 181, and looking back I wonder how I managed to continue and find each new subject throughout 18 years.

It has been great fun to reach out and share with you every month what I thought was right or wrong in this industry. I have clashed with some and received praise from others but whatever was written was the truth as I believed it to be. In fact, I was never sued - although there were three instances where we got close. In two cases, the threat was withdrawn - because the claimant didn't have a leg to stand on - and the third because the editor apologised in order to calm the waters, though the incriminated Limeblast had told the truth and I think would have won in court if I had put my foot down and wanted to get right to the bottom. But the smoking of the peace pipe was probably the best solution.

Some Limeblasts had follow-up articles that softened corners or rectified mistakes, which had been pointed out to me and that I have always been ready to admit; others had follow-ups that dug deeper and pushed further, turning the knife in the opened wound. It has been great but now I am left wondering if we are ready for change.

The end of an era

Business in the leather value chain, like in many other industries, is based on competition, which should be based on price, quality, innovation, know-how, technology or fashion, for example. It is very sad to see that, instead, some entrepreneurs - particularly in the machine sector - believe that competition is based on bad-mouthing a rival company rather than submitting arguments that their product offers certain values and characteristics that respond to the requirements of a particular buyer.

It is, for me, incomprehensible that a company believes that it needs to sell its product by pointing out the presumed defects of a competing product rather than highlighting the virtues of its own.

It is, for me, incomprehensible that a company believes that it needs to sell its product by pointing out the presumed defects of a competing product rather than highlighting the virtues of its own. The need to thrive on the presumed shortcomings of others only diminishes the virtues of the product one wants to sell and, most of all, the credibility of the seller.

I actually get the feeling that by talking about others, such sellers want and need to hide the shortcomings of their own products. The buyer, on the other hand, gets the feeling that they are being underestimated and manipulated in their ability to distinguish between two products, and when they are subjected to this bad-mouthing of a competing product, they can only assume that the company that uses this sales technique doesn't have a valid argument for its own products. When a car dealer offers a premium vehicle, they will underline its virtues or technology and will not waste their and the buyer's time to point out what they believe are the shortcomings of a competing manufacturer.

Our brand is in crisis

There was a period in which brands, mainly of consumer goods, launched publicity campaigns that compared their own products in some detail with the products of competing brands, particularly in the US market, causing fierce legal battles with high stakes. These legal battles made some corporate lawyers very rich but I doubt if sales of these brands were positively affected by hanging their competition out to dry. In fact, in some cases, I am sure that this negative approach backfired badly.

Coca-Cola and Pepsi are competing for the last possible buyer of their soft drinks but not by bad-mouthing each other's product. In fact, in certain fields, they cooperate. When one Coca-Cola employee offered to sell Pepsi the secret Coke formula, it was Pepsi that blew the whistle and warned Coke and the FBI, which got the dishonest Coca-Cola employee imprisoned and kept the formula safe.

Nutella also recently hit out against a French Government minister when it was accused of using palm oil from illegal plantations. In big industry, you can't just shoot from the hip. In the leather industry, you apparently can and get away with it. We are too small and too small-minded.

Competition is great. It is stimulated by research and development. It got us to the moon and beyond, and gave us our smartphones and computers. Even if the leather industry is very conservative, we have seen some important innovation.

Great examples are the use of polypropylene in the manufacture of drums to substitute wood or the introduction of the vacuum drier, but also new chemicals that ensure lower health risks for the consumers and/or a cleaner environment.

On the money

Price creates another competitive edge but this is already a more difficult issue. Hearing buyers of machines mention a price difference for equivalent products of 20-30% is not credible unless the quality of the used materials is different, which is mainly the factor between many though not all Western-made products or products made in China, where the playing field in many cases is not level in terms of human and worker rights and treatment, pollution, raw materials used, or quality in general.

Coca-Cola and Pepsi are competing for the last possible buyer of their soft drinks, but not by bad-mouthing each other’s product.

The final decision is obviously up to the buyer, who must put themselves in a position in which they can compare competing products in all aspects. And here also comes an element of decency into the picture. A salesperson should not take advantage of the ignorance of some buyers by promising the moon, which they know from discussions the buyer cannot distinguish from Jupiter.

Then we have the always-present plague of the 'incentives', which some sellers use to convince employees to suggest to their boss the purchase of one product instead of another. This bad habit remains a risk and cost factor for tanneries, where the management is not doing its purchasing hands-on.

To sell raw materials, machines or chemicals, some purchasing departments - mainly those of big companies - give producers the choice to pay a commission (strictly under the table of course) or not sell their products. Some tannery technicians have allegedly made a fortune behind the backs of their company management.

In short, honesty with oneself and towards the people a producer or seller is working with is important. The truth can and should be told - eliminating the horse manure that is now frequently part of negotiations; again, I repeat, particularly in those circumstances where buyers are not fully aware of what they are really buying. It is not always the seller who is at fault; the buyer, in many cases, is 'penny-wise but pound-foolish'. Deciding only on price is usually the biggest mistake one can make.

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