What does it take to go international? I interviewed expert Mark Ross (Global Sales, Marketing & Business Development, linkedin.com/in/markross101) — Mark “creates the blueprint to take a company international.” He relates stories and lessons from his 20 years of international product market development.
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In brief, Mark says you need to have a successful domestic brand before you try to go international. Your first step could be to validate the targeted international market — one low risk way to do that is to participate in an international tradeshow sponsored by the US Department of Commerce. At that show, you will want to connect with local retailers and distributors.
Once you get home, start researching the distributors. They will be your key to unlocking that targeted international market. Ask the retailers, which distributors are most reliable, and find out which ones carry complementary and non-competing products to yours.
For example, Mark worked at a company that made military style jackets, and a complementary product line for them was bluejeans. In this example, Mark’s advice is to contact the American bluejeans company to find out which distributors pay their bills on time and are reliable partners, and check with retailers in the target market to validate that your target demographic actually shops there.
Throughout the interview, it became increasingly clear that this distributor relationship will be absolutely crucial to your long-term international success.
And, this partnership runs both ways — by carrying your jacket, the distributor may be able to sell into a retailer who would not have taken bluejeans alone, but will take the mix of bluejeans plus jackets. By carrying your product, the distributor can become a stronger player.
As soon as you start to get some distribution, a good distributor will start give you crucial market feedback, and you are ready to take the next step — tweaking your product to better fit the new market.
These tweaks could be as simple as packaging changes, or country specific hang tags. In the case of apparel, if you were for example going into the Japanese market, you would quickly discover that the Japanese consumer has a much higher expectation of quality than any other consumer in the world. You will not find a single loose thread on a single pair of jeans in a successful Japanese retail store.
So, in order to compete, you may need to make product changes. Mark recalls how difficult it was for his jacket company to respond to their international distributors request for the military style jacket, but in the color blue instead of olive drab. His company had never made any other color before. By the time Mark left, they had gone from one style jacket one color, to 11 jackets in 6 to 8 colors each.
Eventually, your overseas presence may become so large that you can open an overseas office. Until that happens, however, you must rely your distributor could be your eyes and ears into the marketplace. That means you distributor relationship must be one of great strength and great trust.