Quality and craftsmanship

Many business gurus state that quality is created by keeping the amount of products that work according to specification up. Others argue that it is not about the lack of errors, but about fulfilling customer expectations. On the surface defining quality seems easy: it is that which is good. But soon we discover that it is not only what is good, it is what stands out. A Casio watch compared to one that came for free with washing powder might seem as a product of incredible quality, but compare a Rolex with a Casio and it suddenly becomes a cheaply produced mass consumption product. Of course the value of the materials used to produce a Rolex is higher, but there is more to it than only time and money. What I want to discuss is the quality of products, in both its physical and psychological manifestations.

When we judge the quality of a product we judge it by the total experience. That is: the actual properties of the product plus the experience we have with these properties. Because the experience depends not only on the product but also on its surroundings —other products available, emotional attachment— the perceived value of a product varies from place to place and from person to person. This split between the actual product quality and perceived quality leads to a situation where it becomes possible to increase the perceived value, without actually increasing the actual product’s quality. To stay competitive many companies choose to increase their experienced quality through large advertisement campaigns that enable the price of the product to go up. It can create a situation where expensive products become expensive, not because they are good, but because the marketing campaign needs to be paid for. I would argue that there is a better way: increase the perceived quality through actually increasing the quality. This is the age-old path of the craftsman.

Quality is realised through the interaction between the physical and the psychological world. Take a bottle of wine for example. The house wine sold in a local supermarket supplies the alcohol that will get your body in a more relaxed state. Nevertheless it is no match for the experience of drinking a French wine imported by a French friend whom you met years ago during your stay in Paris. They might do their physical job equally well, but the psychological impact is of a different magnitude. You can engage with the story, you feel the care, passion and dedication of both the friend and the château in every sip you take. Besides the insurance that only the best ingredients are used, you also want to be engagement with the story and the care of the craftsman who created the product.

In a competitive market the producers of products need to keep on innovating and increase their quality to remain competitive. In the category of computers it becomes quite clear that what was known as the best of the best five years ago is no longer relevant today. But what if innovation is no longer possible? If you are the producer of a famous quality whisky with roots going back for centuries, coming up with a new improved flavour might not be the successful path to follow. Instead what you can do is focus your attention on perceived quality. You can tell the consumers through advertisement campaigns about your unique values, your incredible ingredients, your centuries of tradition; all these stories increase the experience of the first sip.

The problem here is that the quality of the product remains the same. None of the hard working labourers in the distillery will get an extra penny for the improved experience, since what they are doing remains what they’ve been doing for centuries. Or even more in the case of mineral water, where the labour involved consists mainly of bottling the water that was already there. What goes for both mineral water and whisky is that the price that we pay to purchase these products is mainly used to pay for the advertisement that seduced us to buy these products in the first place.

I think this is wrong. We should not waste the sparse resources of this world on advertisement that informs us that we should really buy products of good quality by craftsmen who care. It does not benefit the hard work of the craftsman and it creates the risk of make-belief. Thanks to the power of branding and advertisement we might consider to buy products —for example clothes— that are of a higher price and lower quality than those we could have bought if we weren’t persuaded by the power of marketing.

The money could better be spent on making people aware of the advantages of purchasing products that are created by people who truly care about creating great products. People who not only perform their job, but master it, not because there is a demand for quality, but because pushing quality beyond the ordinary creates a sense of meaningful being for the craftsman. Passion, dedication, care and hard work create an environment where magic can happen. When the reason for making good products goes beyond the wish of keeping clients and reputation, there is a new space where good can become great. L’art pour l’art, craftsmanship for craftsmanship’s sake.