I’m often asked about how brands should plan for international growth. It's always a tricky question to answer because every industry and business will have a complex variety of issues facing it - from its product to its people through to its potential audiences. Therefore there is never a "silver bullet" process where everything can be mapped out and planned in advance. In reality - the process is more messy. So if you plan to take a brand across borders get comfortable being uncomfortable.
But thats part of the adventure. Right? We'd not have it any other way.
Although here is no one clear way of going international with a brand there is an over-all process that I've been developing and recommending which I advise leadership teams to use when they begin to make plans to go international. This high level plan is the subject of this blog-post. I hope it's useful to you.
The internationalisation plan
So you are successful in your local Market. Now you want to take your brand global. How do you begin to go about this? Below is a process I've laid out in a step by step fashion - but the truth is you may jump back and forth phases in a more agile way. Treat this as a framework rather than a set of rules. Here we go...
The worst thing a leadership team can do in my view is begin to go global without ensuring they are united on the basics. Are we aligned on why we exist, what our vision is for the world, what our "Big Idea" is, who we exist to serve, why they should care, how we are going to show up and what we are going to promise? If not, you'll find the way we make decisions will be disjointed and not customer centric. Get your leadership team together and get them aligned on the foundations before you do anything more. Another thing that is perhaps foundational is to consider if you need to appoint someone in the leadership team the job of being in charge of internationalisation. This will require them to ensure this is a factor in their day to day focus and objectives.
During this phase you need to begin your research. You are basically looking to understand what opporuntities there are out there. The world is a big place but what you want to look for is places where there are opporuntities for you to begin to create a community who believe in your brand and its big idea. You also want to see what infrastructure and support might be in place for you to harness. One simple thing to do in your discovery phase is to review your existing client base. Are there any existing clients or partners operating in other parts of the world that you could easily utilise to establish a foothold in a new territory? At the least perhaps they can introduce you to contacts on the ground? On top of this you could also work with your countries Trade and Investment departments to see if there are any trade missions or insights they could offer about your offering and where they might see opporuntities.
Basically you want to ask: where can we go so that our brand can have the biggest impact?
Where possible I always suggest you try and get some steering groups of potential customers together who reside in the Markets you are exploring. This simple but very valuable exercise helps you to get a good feel as to the opportunity in that Market. Remember branding is the management of meaning - so ask people. What would our offering mean to you? What problem would this solve? How are you solving it at the moment? How much would you spend on this? Etc.
I suggest setting a deadline when you are in planning mode for the discovery step to be complete. The reason for this is that there will always be new things to discover. It's a bottomless pit of activity. So set a date and be prepared to move forward with the best information you have available at that point. At the end of your discovery phase you really want a shortlist of potential New Markets to move into.
Validating a new Market, in my view, is a joint leadership decision. You want all the leaders to understand why a particular Market has been selected and why.
I find a great framework to develop together is a "Go/No-Go" set of criteria. A Go/No-Go framework basically lets you set out an d define the Criteria by which you will assess opporuntities and work out if the New Market is a good place for you to validate for your expansions. For example you would set out your criteria on "Language" say with a "Go" criteria of "Language spoken is the same as in Home Market" and "No-Go" of "Language spoken is not the same as in Home Market". You could set a Go/No-Go criteria on a number of different factors for example:
Contacts on the ground
Existing customers operating in the region
Known audience need
Level of competitor activity
Level of support
Once you have your Go/No-go framework in place run through the shortlist form your Discovery phase. This should give your leadership a good way of exploring which Market should be the target for your activities.
As I've already said though, there is no silver bullet. You will never know everything about a given locality. You will need to go with a bit of instinct. But if the leadership are all present, and can take accountability then it's more likely they will stick to the plan, even when negative factors develop.
So we've done our research and we've now selected a new Market. We now have to get operationally ready. This is often an area which is overlooked but it can take some time to build the right processes, ensure everyone understands who is doing what and when. Here are some things you may need to factor into your plans:
Legal - are we protected and what do we need to be aware of? Do we have all the right documentation and licences.
Financial - do we have the right budgets and contingencies set. What are our growth targets and how long can we last with no income coming in? Will we need investment?
People - are we going to put boots on the ground? If not when will we do so? Who will we use initially? How will we recruit in our new market and what positions will we need? What skills will we look for? Do we have a compelling EVP and Employer brand? Will we move people out there? Have we budgeted to this? Have we checked the employment law and do we have contracts lined up?
Product - is our product set up right for the new market (e.g. language and interfaces built), are we legally protected? Are we offering everything or a simplified version of our product?
Operations - do we have the right supply chain and partners in place? What is our customer experience going to be for the new Market and are we set up to deliver and measure against it?
Marketing - how are we going to generate new leaders in the new Market? How are we going to create awareness and demand?
Communications - Are we set up to communicate in a new region? E.g. can we message in new languages? Have we got a semiotics review to ensure our message will land in new cultures? Do we have the right images and tone of voice?
Perhaps amongst all of this teams need to appreciate what is to be consistent with what they have done in their home region and and what will be allowed to flex in the new territory. This needs to be planned and considered carefully so that it can be replicated in the future. Everything needs to be considered from a customers point of view.
So you have your plan. You are ready. Now it's time to go for it.
It is important though you keep on track of things and focus on what matters. Initially it will be to get a hold in the new territory and survive but as time goes on you will want to do more than just hang on. Therefore setting a 3 year set of objectives is a helpful thing to do. Working back from there you can set quarterly objectives so that you have a solid plan to access your progress against. You can also ensure your expectations are clear to the leaders involved in the expansion.
One of the simplest and most powerful things you can do is set a cadence to review progress. At the start you might want to do this monthly but quarterly is also a good pace to drop into.
As you go-to-market one sensible thing to do is ensure you have advisors or consultants around you who have done what you are trying to do before. Their experience can save you time and money.
As you deliver on your plans you need to test and learn. Failures and successes need to be used to make better decisions and ensure your survive in a new market. It is important to set your accountabilities and continually revisit the frameworks you set up before this phase. It's particularly important to continue to be clear on what is to be consistent with your brand in terms of communications, customer experience and delivery - and what you will allow to flex. This needs to become codified so you can scale at pace clearly.
Once you have landed and established your presence in a new market, typically after a year, it's time to think about expanding. How will you grow in the new Market? How will you win?
At this stage a new plan will likely need to be produced to scale what you have achieved so far. Objectives set and accountabilities made.
It may be you need to consolidate and ensure processes are scalable before you look to expand. Or you might be ready at this stage, generating revenue and are ready to grow.
Whatever the situation, I always suggest businesses set up "listening posts" with customers. These are regular steering groups. They help you understand the impact you are having and get early insights on opporuntities to improve. As you expand you may also need to do this with a cross functional group of colleagues. This gives you a handle on how the cultures are developing in different regions. Ignore culture at your peril!
Branding is about relevance and meaning and so this side of things needs to be considered. Not from your perspective but from your audiences.
So - there is the high level plan with the key stages mapped out for you to use as you go international. I do hope you have found it helpful.
Best wishes in taking your brand international and in you changing the world.