When your brand’s been developed for one context, it can be hard to expand into new markets (domestically or internationally). If you stay too close to what works, you won’t be relevant to new audiences. But if you change too much for new markets, your brand will become inconsistent and, ultimately, meaningless. How do you find a happy medium? Tall comes down to understanding local commerce.

Remember your core customers

What’s special about your brand? When you’re so close to it, it’s easy to forget why the people who use your brand, use your brand. Indeed, often the real reasons might surprise you.

When you’re launching a brand in a new region, it’s important to know what it means to your existing customers. Seek out your early champions, or your superfans if you have any, and as them what they love about the brand. Their answers are the core essence of your brand. These people won’t be representative of all your customers, but what they tell you can be hugely instructive.

Once you’ve figured out what your brand truly means, you can adapt it for new markets. But importantly, now you can do it in a way where you stay consistent and true to your brand.

Woman looking confused by interviewer question about local commerce

Embrace a market orientation

What do you know about your new market? Is it “nothing”? Good, that’s the only correct answer.

When you’re entering any market, it’s important to keep a “market orientation“. That means you need to focus first on identifying consumer needs first, and your business second. Ultimately, it means putting the customer at the heart of everything a business does.

If you think you know a bit about a market, it can be easy to rely on stereotypes or incorrect “conventional” wisdom. Instead, be humble and embrace the fact that you know nothing. 

Research your new market

Once you’ve accepted that you don’t know anything about your new market, it’s time to do your research and learn something. If you have the resources, you can work with a professional research company to map out your market for you. They will typically offer two types of research:

  • Qualitative research: this is non-numerical data. You might get this from interviews, focus groups or ethnographic research. This data is unrepresentative but can be useful for discovering unexpected insights about customers. 
  • Quantitative research: This is numerical data. You’re most likely to get this from a customer survey. If your sample size is representative, then this data should be representative of your entire customer base. It can be useful for confirming a hypothesis about your customers but is less likely to generate surprising insights on its own.

However, if you don’t have the budget for a professional research company, there’s still research you can do. Desk research, or even a few chats over coffee, will all help generate valuable insights.

Aerial shot of a person selling produce on a boat in a river market in Thailand

Adapt to local markets (when it’s right)

Once you’ve done your research, you should have identified a few opportunities in your new market. If you’re not sure what you’re looking for, these are most likely to look like problems that need solving. 

Remember when we said you should interview your customers and define what your brand stands for? Now you need to try and take advantage of these opportunities, in a way that still fits your brand’s identity while recognising local commerce limitations. 

For example, McDonald’s is famous for selling burgers across the world. But what does the company do in India, where in much of the country eating beef is forbidden? McDonald’s sticks to its brand as a burger retailer but sells an adjusted menu featuring products like potato or cheese-based burgers. 

Similarly, KFC became China’s favourite fast-food restaurant by sticking to its chicken-based roots. But crucially, the brand gives its products a local twist, serving chicken with soy sauce and selling green tea-flavoured ice cream. 

Whether you’re expanding internationally or down the road, you need to find new opportunities without losing your identity.

Hand holding a red block with a shop icon

Make use of local talent

Nobody knows a market better than the people who live there. If your business is operating on a small scale, you can be successful with a token presence. And it probably won’t do too much harm if all of your team are transplants from HQ. But once you start expanding, it’s important to bring local talent into your organisation.

When you’ve hired local talent, it’s also important to make sure they have a real voice in your organisation. Too many companies hire locals at a junior level but relocate managers they trust from the central office. Eventually, this setup creates resentment among local staff and makes it harder to retain talent. More importantly, you’ll also miss out on the local commerce insights local managers can bring to the table.

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