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15 key principles to help you succeed internationally

Since 2002, Oban has helped over 250 businesses – from challenger brands to category leaders – achieve massive international growth in diverse markets around the world. From that accumulated experience, we have distilled the key principles for successful international expansion – read on to find out more.


#1: Have realistic expectations

Start the process of international expansion with realistic expectations. If your brand or product has been established in the UK for ten years and is doing well, it is likely to take you several years to build up a similar presence in other markets.

In the short term, businesses which expand internationally face additional costs – for example:

  • Localising content and marketing materials into multiple languages
  • Shipping items long distances and handling returns
  • Tailoring your product to suit different markets

Make sure you are prepared for the financial commitment and time it will take for you to see the international returns you are looking for.


#2: Start small but think big

It may be tempting to throw everything you have into an overseas expansion but starting small is often a better approach. Focusing on a specific product or region and getting that right before moving into additional markets will help you to avoid potentially costly mistakes.

That said, don’t let your geography limit how big you think, or how far you can expand your reach. Going global can be challenging, but when you take the time to invest in infrastructure and localise your approach, you will be able to recognise and adapt to global complexities from the start—allowing you to tap into vast and varied business opportunities as time goes on. And that puts you in a great position to keep expanding into new markets.


#3: Do your due diligence

Before making major business decisions around global expansion, think through all possible scenarios. Could you spend time in the country you want to break into? An information-gathering trip is a great way to help you develop a plan with confidence.

Research and due diligence will help you to understand the customer culture of your overseas operations. For example:

  • Market analysis, researching market size and growth potential, consumer segments, consumer preferences, market channel research, market investment analysis, and more.
  • Competitive analysis – how does your competitor set vary by market? How does your business offering and operations compare to competitors in your new target markets? Are your online competitors different to your offline competitors?
  • SWOT analysis, lending a numbers-backed look into the actual sales and revenue potential of target markets.
  • PEST analysis, looking at the landscape that may affect your business in each target market.


#4: Get employees on board

To succeed internationally, current employees need to be on board. You will need them to help train new employees and build new processes. Include them by asking for their ideas on communication, customer acquisition, marketing and more. Find out their concerns and how they propose to overcome them. Your people know your business in a way no one else does, so involving them in the process will help get the details right. Ensure you have a core brand identity, which anchors everything your team do, regardless of which market they are targeting.


#5: Understand local audience intent

From a digital perspective, one of the worst mistakes a brand can make is simply taking their English keyword lists and translating them. Successful keywords are not just tied to language but to culture and geography also. The way people think about and search for your product may be quite different around the world. If you simply translate an English keyword list, you could be missing fundamental nuances – which could cost you money.

For example:

  • You can easily translate “summer vacation” into Korean. But Korea doesn’t have summer vacations – so simply translating this concept doesn’t make sense if you want to sell family vacation packages
  • One of Oban’s clients is a leading player in the city sightseeing space. They found that their core product – open air city bus tours – did not really exist as a concept in China, which made market entry difficult – as people weren’t searching for it
  • There are sub-regional preferences for all kinds of terms. The word for “avocado” is “palta” in Peru, “aguacate” in Spain, but “pagua” in Cuba. If you use the wrong term on your Peruvian website, your customers might never find you

That is why keyword translators must also be keyword researchers. They must use their own local cultural knowledge (as well as available online tools) to evaluate the efficacy of all translated keywords.


#6: Think in terms of individual countries

Companies can sometimes view overseas markets in vague regional terms (e.g. “We’re shifting our focus to South America,” or “We’d like to double our growth in Europe”), but this oversimplification can create problems. For example, “Europe” can mean different things to different people —Western Europe, the European Union, the eurozone, and so on.

Customers identify at the national level, and every country has its own local laws, cultural norms, forms of currency and payment, and unique business practices.

It is essential to break up broader geographic regions into individual countries with distinct revenue and lead generation goals—and to conduct local-specific research for each country. Being country-specific from the beginning helps with market prioritisation, staffing plans, and budget allocation—all of which are necessary for helping you achieve your international growth targets.

Local market research should focus on understanding market size, the challenges customers face, the local competitor set, and where your product can fit in. Some companies fail to think about product positioning at the country level and overlook considerations like strong local competition.

Businesses should not assume that because something works well on your home turf, it will work well somewhere else. Copying and pasting domestic processes onto international ones and expecting identical results rarely, if ever, works.


#7: Local in-market expertise is essential

Successful international expansion requires local in-market expertise. Without it, it is difficult to navigate the cultural and linguistic challenges and fully exploit the opportunities in each market. A local team or partner can help you understand the local audience, the local competition, how to comply with local regulations and how to communicate your company’s unique selling point in a way that is meaningful to the local market. Having the right partners and team in place is essential. Without Local In-Market Experts, you will be placed at a competitive disadvantage.


#8: Adapt sales and marketing channels

Companies (especially Western ones) can sometimes believe they can enter new markets by following the same approach that brought them domestic success. While brand consistency is important, different markets favour different sales and marketing approaches – explained by where they sit in Hofstede’s six cultural dimensions. For example, in countries where relationships have a higher cultural value, such as Japan, selling products and services through local partners, such as resellers or channel partners, achieves faster success than direct sales models. Conversely, SaaS, online, and touchless sales models are often popular in markets where the cost of living is higher and automation is prized, such as the Nordic markets.

Similarly, marketers need to vary their channel mix according to the behaviours of each country, and this can vary across countries within the same region. For example, in Brazil, a marketing campaign might find more success with promoted messages on Facebook due to the popularity of this social network there, while in other Latin American countries, Twitter might attract a specific audience more quickly, and therefore be a more effective marketing tool. While some channels work across many markets, explore what delivers the best result in each market through market research which involves Local In-Market Experts.


#9: Adapt the product offering

Often, companies can try to launch identical products in different markets, overlooking the fact that target audiences might vary by market. For example, a software company won’t succeed abroad if it sells the same product that it sells at home if users in the new market are not as familiar with certain features. Instead, they might start with a more basic version of the product so users can become accustomed to it. Conversely, a more advanced market might expect more features than a product currently offers.

Pricing is a similar issue. Because the value proposition varies from one market to the next, pricing will vary. Companies don’t always need to change their pricing structure for international markets, but many do find that they are able to grow more quickly by adjusting pricing at the local level. Marketers need to consider different pricing strategies for markets accordingly.

Payment methods and preferences vary widely from one country to another. Localising these appropriately will help drive sales.


#10: Localise don’t translate

Translation involves changing text from one language into another so that the meaning is equivalent. By contrast, localisation addresses cultural and non-textual components as well as linguistic issues when adapting a product or service for another country or region. You need to adapt your product and localise your strategy to fit the business climate and culture of each country you enter. Simply relying on translation can lead to missed opportunities or costly mistakes. In a worst-case scenario, it can cause offence leading to reputational harm.


#11: Localise all content

If you target different countries that speak the same language, you might think that you can re-use content across different versions of your website.  You shouldn’t. It is important that the content featured in each country is localised, targeting the specific local audience culture and behaviours in each country. You will still need to localise time, local holidays, seasonality, environment and more.  The same language almost always has some different word preferences or alternative terms to describe products or services.


#12: Get the right infrastructure in place

Don’t underestimate the importance of infrastructure when you are planning your international expansion. Business regulations, legalisation, tax codes, and other requirements differ from region-to-region. Iron them out before you make the leap.  It will save headaches for you—and your potential customers—as you get the process started.

You especially need to have the right digital infrastructure in place – and if you don’t have it already, then a plan to ensure you do. A small example: think through the consequences of how employees will share data securely and whether the data you are capturing follows the law and best practices in each market. It is essential to have a management team aligned behind an agreed international expansion strategy, and to decide which business decisions will be made on a local level and which will be made centrally.


#13: Be willing to change direction

Once you do expand, be prepared to face unexpected challenges. That may mean changing how you operate in some ways. You can’t be afraid to pivot. Once you are up and running, give your customers and stakeholders a voice and listen to it carefully. Carry out tests, and improve your business based on the feedback you receive. With each new country comes new challenges, and businesses must be prepared to adapt.


#14: Have the right partners

Take time to find the best partners to complement your team. The right partners will help you navigate the cultural, linguistic, digital, legal and operational hurdles around the world. There are plenty of UK headquartered businesses which help companies succeed internationally and which can connect you to specialist local in-market expertise.


#15: Think long term

Often, international expansion is not something that delivers overnight profit. The process will take time, so be prepared for it. Different markets will generate different circumstances. In all cases, preparation is the key to success. Is it worth it? Definitely. With the right strategy and help from locals and professionals, going global could be one of the most profitable moves you have ever made.

. . .

This is an edited extract from Oban’s book Going Global: How to improve digital marketing performance in any market on the planet. To obtain your copy of the book, click here.

To find out how Oban’s network of Local In-Market Experts can help you succeed internationally, please get in touch.

Oban International is the digital marketing agency specialising in international expansion. Our LIME (Local In-Market Expert) Network provides up to date cultural input and insights from over 80 markets around the world, helping clients realise the best marketing opportunities and avoid the costliest mistakes.

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