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Building great export brands is primarily about commitment, persistence and strong partnerships. Duncan Shand shares his action plan for succeeding in export markets.

Recently someone asked me, “Duncan, what keeps you up at night?” 

While my list could go on and on, one of the key responses would be my role in helping to contribute to a thriving New Zealand economy. I have three kids, all who are nearing the end of school or university. I want to see them get great jobs and work in a strong, healthy and innovative business environment. That’s why a key focus for my agency is to help New Zealand businesses grow and, where possible, help those businesses earn more through exporting. 

In terms of context, exporting is hard. There is no getting around it. It’s already incredibly challenging to grow a strong domestic business, but to grow a successful export business on top of that is ten times more difficult. 

When building an export brand you’re no longer operating in just that one local market you’re already familiar with. Most start with zero market knowledge, and this is a key challenge. There are cultural differences, both in how you communicate, and how you do business. And on top of that, you have to take business off someone locally to win – so your product, service (and marketing efforts) have to be world class. 

Here are some learnings we’ve gained over our past ten years of operation that will help you better prepare your business for exporting:

Market familiarity 

Nothing substitutes for time in market. However, you can help shorten the process by researching from home. To build your local knowledge, use tools like LinkedIn to help connect you to the right people in the market. You could also consider investing in a Virtual Private Network (VPN) so you can use a local IP address and see which competitors are heavily advertising in your targeted market. If you want to fully understand how things work, you need to go to your chosen export market and spend time on-the-ground.

Three golden words: Product, Market, Fit

Ultimately, you need a product and offer that works in the local market. If you have taken the time to understand the market and competitor environment, there are many ways to test you are fit before you fully invest in market entry. 

Start by launching a local landing page, but service this from New Zealand. Use Adwords or social media to pay for some traffic, merchandise your product, and see how your offer works. You could do this for three months – explore a different offer every couple of weeks to see if you can find something that works. 

What you clearly don’t want to do is fully commit to market entry and get it wrong. For example, we had one client with a strong local business that committed to entering into Canada. They developed a brand, manufactured stock, invested in warehousing and systems, launched the product – and then approached us to help them advertise. In the end, it simply didn’t work.

Build your brand from your product

No matter how clever your advertising, media spend or marketing automation systems – the quality of your product is paramount. Everything else just supports this. 

One of the challenges in New Zealand is that we’re a long way away geographically, and as a small market we have a relatively low amount of competition compared to our international peers. This means what’s good enough here isn’t always good enough overseas. 

So if you’re really considering going international, make sure you’ve built a product or service with international quality. Everything – the product design, the packaging, the website, the service and support – look at the whole end-to-end customer journey and make sure you’re winning on the important points and at parity on the rest.  

Brand is important, but focus on performance marketing and sales first

Just like any new business launch, in the beginning you need sales. Your brand efforts should be restrained so you can focus on your product, collateral and sales tools. When starting with a limited budget, begin by focusing on the pointy end of the funnel – the consumers buying right now. 

Use Adwords to target those currently in research mode and get them to consider your product. 

Just to clarify, your collateral (including your website) needs to be great. This really is an investment in brand. You can also do smart things with targeted display or video ads to people searching keywords relevant to your brand or who have visited your website. 

I’m not suggesting no brand investment at all, just more focus on sales at the start.

As a general rule, you’ll probably need to spend around 12 to 18 months focused on performance marketing before you can move towards investing in brand building. If you have the available funds, of course do both – but also understand that building a brand takes time.

Control your brand – globally, and locally

Developing a strong global brand is essential. You don’t want to lose control and have different brands or contrasting executions of your brand in different markets. Building and maintaining a consistent brand across all markets is the goal. 

At the same time, you need to have flexibility to execute locally, so ensure your brand understands the local culture and is seen as contributing locally. To do this, you’ll want to have a main brand agency responsible for the brand and core work, and local marketing partners they can work with, to produce market specific executions.  

Connect authentically with local users early

Get real users to test and review your product early on. They can provide feedback and post reviews if they have a positive experience. Either way, positive or negative, you’ll get real market feedback (fast) and can then address and make any adjustments required. You might also come across some local brand ambassadors that can help you along the way.

Lastly, there are some things an agency can’t help you with. You need to spend time in the market, establish key early customers, understand local distribution, and determine whether you need distribution partners or go direct to consumer. Remember, there aren’t any silver bullet solutions. Building great export brands is about commitment, persistence and developing strong partnerships with people who share your vision.  

Duncan Shand is co-founder and managing director of YoungShand (visit This article was first published in the November 2019 issue of NZBusiness.

Glenn Baker

Glenn is a professional writer/editor with 50-plus years’ experience across radio, television and magazine publishing.


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