National survey reveals manufacturers are less confident about U.S. economy

While there is still general optimism regarding the U.S. economic environment, manufacturing executives are less confident today than one year ago, reports a national survey conducted by Grant Thornton LLP, the accounting, tax and business advisory organization.

According to the Grant Thornton Survey of U.S. Business Leaders, 60 percent of manufacturing respondents expect the U.S. economy to improve in the coming year – a considerable decrease from 82 percent of respondents in January 2004.

Although economic recovery has been slower than expected, the vast majority of manufacturing executives (92 percent) still remain optimistic about the growth of their own business. In addition, nearly half (48 percent) plan to increase their headcounts over the next six months and nine in ten are on pace to meet or exceed their sales targets (32 percent exceed and 61 percent on target).

And, as companies strive to grow further, business leaders have recommitted to a critical asset: their brand. Nearly two-thirds of respondents (66 percent) agree that having a strong brand is more important today than it was just two years ago, with the primary focus on fostering loyalty among current customers (79 percent) and differentiating the company within the marketplace (74 percent).

“Manufacturers see the need to provide more than just products to their markets. The best and most loyal customers today don’t want their expectations just to be met, but exceeded,” says Jim Maurer, partner in charge of Grant Thornton’s consumer and industrial products industry practice. “A strong brand conveys this commitment to customers and sets them apart from their competition in acquiring new clients and retaining existing ones.”

Building a brand often begins with identifying the core strengths that give a company their competitive advantage. Among manufacturing companies, 80 percent say their strong market and customer relationships are the competitive advantages that drive their brand, while 63 percent say it’s their superior sales and distribution capabilities.

To deliver this brand promise, manufacturers have made significant investments in a variety of areas, including operations (56 percent) and information technology (52 percent). Attracting key talent, refining processes, equipment, and sales round out the list at 50 percent each.

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