If you thought that products with a strong regional brand were only suited to domestic markets, it’s time to think again. “I knew very early on that being a regional-branded product, I was not going to get the level of growth I wanted from the UK market alone,” says Laura Bounds, owner of Kent Crisps. County-specific loyalty should not be underestimated, she says. “Consumers are extremely supportive of their own county’s producers, which means somewhere like Asia can almost be an easier market to enter than Yorkshire, for example.”
Over the past eight years, Bounds has developed Kent Crisps into a globally-recognised brand, exporting to 15 countries worldwide, with quality products that showcase all that Kent has to offer, including the landmarks and landscapes unique to the county.
For any business with an eye on growth, export could present a significant opportunity, Bounds says, but success doesn’t happen by chance and understanding market opportunities is essential to success. The government’s Department for International Trade (DIT) should be your first port of call for advice.
“You’ve got to put yourself out there to learn and understand before going ahead and doing it,” Bounds adds. Attending events and networking with experienced industry colleagues who have “been there and done it” is time well spent. Bounds advises making the most of any funding available for market visits, with big trade shows singled out as an invaluable source of market intelligence. “Try and understand from others where their failings have been,” Bounds advises.
At the same time, don’t be shy to pick up the phone and talk to potential clients in those markets, Bounds says. “You don’t have to be pitching your service or product but ring them and explain that you’re looking to export to their market and want to understand it better. “The most help I’ve had is from distributors and wholesalers who have told me what they require to take my product on.”
Kent Crisps uses three routes to export markets. On the whole, particularly for smaller markets, they work with UK consolidators who have existing relationships with wholesalers in export markets. “That works really well if you don’t have resources internally, because they do all the work for you and it means you have just one direct relationship in the UK that you ship to.”
In other markets, including Asia, Bounds has direct relationships with wholesalers and distributors built up over years. The third option is to have agents in those markets, however the resources required to manage people overseas should not be underestimated, she warns: “Often they’re on quite high retainers, and it’s difficult to get that return. That model hasn’t worked particularly well for me in the past,” she says.
When it comes to exporting, the legislative and regulatory considerations can be significant, particularly in a highly-regulated industry such as food. It’s not as simple as translating ingredients into different languages, she warns. “Legislation is different in every country, so we have to ensure that all the products, packaging and ingredients are suitable for the markets we want to export to.”
Regulation aside, market understanding is key. Do your research, Bounds advises. “About 10 years ago I naïvely took Sea Salt & Cider Vinegar flavour crisps with the ambition of selling in Dubai, not realising quite how strict the regulations around selling any alcohol-marketed products, even flavoured crisps, are in the Middle Eastern market. We know that vinegar flavours are not favoured by the Asia market, which discounts two of our flavours immediately from being listed there. For the US market, there are some quirks that mean adjustments to ingredients are needed in order to fall in line with food regulations, without which we would not be able to export some of our range into the US.”
Kent Crisps underwent a rebranding exercise in 2014 that included changing the packaging to make it more appealing to export markets. Prominent use of the Union Jack and its colours together with a strapline about British products gives Kent Crisps a USP and resonates well with overseas clients, particularly in the US and Asia, she says. Bounds was also awarded an MBE for Services to International Trade in 2021, something that has contributed to an increase in export sales over the last 18 months.
Today, export sales represent around 25% of the company’s turnover, having grown exponentially in recent years. Organic growth has served Bounds well. “With firm foundations in export, we are now finding that more opportunities are coming to us, meaning that less time needs to be focused on trade missions and creating connections in new markets.”
Her current strategy is to focus on nurturing existing relationships. “We have a loyal customer base across a number of key markets and we know the importance of looking after the business we have worked hard to win. It’s very much about finding the balance and ensuring we are developing existing relationships and making the most of the opportunities they bring, rather than chasing every potential market and growing unsustainably or not delivering the level of service that we have come to be known for,” she says.
“When you’re selling a product or service to the domestic market, you have account meetings with your buyers, you see them regularly, and you have an account plan. With the export market, your buyers are in a different country, but they still need the same level of service. In my experience, the reason export sales fail isn’t because of the product.”
Widespread virtual working since the pandemic has definitely oiled the export cogs, however, if you’re not willing to put in the legwork, export probably isn’t for you, Bounds warns. “Virtual buying in export never used to be the done thing. Now, we’re in a situation where I’ve never met my US clients in person. That has made life a lot easier and people are more open to doing business virtually, but I still think face-to-face in business is good practice,” Bounds says.
At the same time, the positive perception of British food brands in overseas markets will definitely help to give you the edge, Bounds believes, thanks to very high food standards, high-quality products and a strong farming heritage. “I remember having a meeting in Dubai with a firm and they said, I don’t even need to try your product, because it’s British.”
- ICAEW is working with DIT to promote the services on offer to businesses.
- ICAEW in conjunction with DIT has produced a series of webinars to guide businesses through the exporting process.
- Join ICAEW’s Global Trade Community for free for essential updates and guidance on selling overseas.
- Global Trade Community | ICAEW
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