U.S. exports continue to grow, but many American companies lack the international business know-how to capitalize on this potential source of increased sales and profits. Proliferating trade agreements and a weakened U.S. dollar have resulted in one of the most favorable export markets in decades. Foreign importers of U.S. goods report an increasing demand for U.S. products—from popcorn to pet food. The U.S. has enjoyed 11 straight quarters of increasing exports—yet with 95 percent of the world’s population residing outside of U.S. borders and an increasingly promising international sales outlook, experts are questioning why only 5 percent of U.S. companies are currently exporting. But how do we initiate and sustain growth in unfamiliar markets?
1. DEFINE STRATEGIC NEEDS
Tapping into new markets provides the opportunity for increased revenue and profits. However, this initiative needs to be consistent with the company’s overall strategy. Inconsistent, sporadic, or unfocused deployment of resources directed toward international growth can result in an underperforming initiative that soaks up limited resources with little return. Barriers to entry (duties, regulatory, and trademark restrictions) need to be identified and addressed. A SWOT analysis detailing the company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats will identify and help maximize the company’s strengths, minimize its weaknesses, and give focus to the international opportunity.
An international growth plan consistent with the corporate strategy will enhance the odds of success. Tactical aspects of international development such as sales, distribution, and marketing need to be addressed. International growth factors can be sufficiently different from the U.S. models that a lack of familiarity can dramatically reduce the chances of success. Above all, there must be clear direction, full management support, and dedicated resources.
2. SECURE APPROPRIATE ASSISTANCE
Small or medium firms initiating or expanding into international business will find the U.S. Government’s Department of Commerce (DOC) an enthusiastic partner in helping American companies succeed globally. This organization coordinates resources from across 19 Federal agencies to help American businesses plan their international strategies in an increasingly globalized environment. In an unfamiliar foreign market with confusing regulations, uncertainty, and risk, the DOC can help U.S. businesses navigate the overseas sales process and avoid hazards such as payment defaults and misappropriation of trademark and intellectual property.
The DOC’s commercial service provides a surprisingly actionable array of quality services including in-country market research, trade events and missions, trade leads, and introductions to prospective business partners. The Export-Import Bank and the Small Business Administration unite to help in the financing of U.S. goods and services exports to the international market, enabling companies to turn international leads into solid sales.
Firms specializing in international business development can help jump-start foreign expansion. These firms are groups of highly skilled, experienced professionals offering practical, cost-effective assistance to companies committed to maximizing revenue and profit potential through accelerated international growth. The range of services offered varies by firm, but overall they help companies conceptualize, implement, and manage large or small international business development projects. These services can range from determining the overseas market potential for a product to managing a firm’s export sales to identifying and qualifying foreign strategic alliances.
A company wanting to penetrate the international market needs to assign a fully dedicated resource to this initiative. This individual should be the linchpin connecting the organization’s resources, know-how, and culture to the international initiative. As the business develops, additional resources should be assigned to maximize the opportunity. These should be considered investments rather than costs.
3. DETERMINE MARKET ENTRY STRATEGY
A firm’s appropriate market entry strategy will largely depend on its level of international development. For a company just commencing its international development, market penetration via in-country distributor sales may be the fastest and most cost-effective way to enter a foreign market. Selling through in-country distributors is relatively low-risk and will provide valuable learning opportunities. Once the target country or region has been identified, a process that will naturally derive from the SWOT analysis, the selection process can begin. Various U.S. government agencies and trade associations can provide a wealth of data to begin narrowing the selection. Trade publications and events are also an excellent source. Factors to consider when selecting a market may include such criteria as regulatory environment, market size and potential, cost of entry, and competitive environment. To further narrow the possibilities, an in-country visit is required. Once there, the use of trade leads, competitive evaluations, local government assistance, and potential candidate interviews will provide additional information and insights. Major considerations in selecting a distributor are: willingness to assign a dedicated resource, market leadership or track record, marketing savvy, complementary and not competitive products or services, site inspection, and financial stability.
Penetrating a new international market is often perceived as an extension of the existing domestic business. Consequently, many American companies bypass standard business guidelines requiring rigorous market analysis. Only after performing thorough due diligence can one elaborate a service or product offering and accompanying marketing programs.
A company’s preferred mode of entry—in-country distribution, joint venture, merger, or acquisition—will depend on that firm’s primary objectives from opportunistic sales to positioning for long-term market-driven growth.
Economic globalization will increasingly lead to the creation of strategic alliances. U.S. firms must make sure that potential partners share short- and long-term objectives in order to reduce the divergence of ideas and efforts. Common values and shared business/ethical standards will enhance communications, transparency, and effectiveness. The partners should have complementary strengths and weaknesses to build a stronger and more effective alliance. Principles and processes for conflict resolution and the relationship must be drafted and agreed to by all parties concerned for the partnership to run smoothly.
4. DESIGN EFFECTIVE MARKETING
All markets have commonalities. However, effective international marketing begins with the awareness that markets are also different in ways that are not immediately apparent. The key is understanding consumers and identifying their needs through culturally specific market research. Focus groups can be especially effective in identifying the international consumer’s wants and needs. The advertising agency used in developing the offering should be local or have local representation. Employees with a thorough knowledge of market characteristics and idiosyncrasies will be particularly effective in communicating the desired message and creating and enhancing the brand image. Language skills and an affinity for different cultures are critical assets when marketing internationally.
Flawless execution is key. As a firm executes the international strategy guided by a solid business plan, it is important to celebrate milestones and benchmark against industry leaders.
Although not comprehensive, these four steps will help serve as a guideline for successful international market entry and growth.