Why marketing should lead the export agenda

Why marketing should lead the export agenda

Exporting to markets beyond the European Union will be of increasing interest to UK businesses in the next few years. What can marketers do to own the conversation on this issue, and how can they add most value in terms of knowledge-sharing and advice?

It sounds like a simple message for the marketing manager to impart: exporting to overseas organisations offers new trade opportunities from which the bottom line can only benefit.

Yet there can be many obstacles, real and imagined, to prevent this from getting through. In large companies, it can be a matter of communication failure – departments operating in silos, or even turf wars. For SMEs, the effort of gearing up to international trade can seem daunting. Indeed, according to the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), the proportion of members exporting was 21% in 2016, the same as in 2010. 

How to start the conversation

For the smallest companies – those turning over £5 million or less – exporting is usually a company director’s territory. In larger firms, a board member may sponsor the export initiative before handing things over to a marketing manager. A successful export drive requires many things: understanding the business landscape; the target country’s culture; the day-to-day work of laying foundations; grappling with currency fluctuations; dealing with red tape. Post-Brexit, all this will become more important than ever, and marketers will need to keep abreast with these competencies.

What might a conversation between a marketer and finance director or CEO involve? “Marketers can use various arguments with their board members,” says exporting consultant Julian Bridgewater, managing director of Vantage Research. “They can stress the step-change in the profile and credibility of their brand, as it gains international kudos. After all, many customers abroad make high-quality associations with British products and services.”

Bridgewater explains some of the benefits of exporting that marketers are likely to bring up. “There is, of course, the growth in revenue and profit, and the advantages that come from increased economies of scale. Also, exporting can boost your competitiveness when benchmarked against your rivals.”

Bridgewater refers to Department of International Trade (DIT) figures suggesting that, for 58% of businesses, exporting has “led to a growth not otherwise possible”. Also, 44% confirmed selling overseas had “significantly changed their profile or credibility”.

Focus on data and details

These are great headline statistics; and yet senior executives will often want more to chew on. Marketers should have an informed vision of how any export strategy might progress, or an action plan to gather all possible information, from whatever source, about their target country.

“Don’t try too much too soon,” warns Bridgewater, who has advised various SMEs and large corporates. “Let the data lead you. You may have a senior sponsor saying we want things done yesterday, but you (the marketer) need the nous to point out things the company doesn’t know; that you have to go through all the steps to get it right. 

“There are fundamental questions to be asked – about the brand, the essence of the company’s culture, and its capability. There are big strategic questions too, the first of which is, where do we go – which country?”

While marketers may not make the final decisions, they should be mindful of all these aspects when talking to the board, and hands-on when it comes to projecting the company image. 

Decide how your brand will be projected 

Another crucial question for marketers to address, according to Bridgewater, is how to present the organisation inside the target export market. “Will you market yourself as a UK company with the high expectations that creates? Or, for historic or cultural reasons, are you presenting your business as a foreign local company, hiring local staff and native speakers?”

Anastassia Beliakova, head of trade policy at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) echoes Bridgewater’s advice against rushing in. “It’s essential to have a realistic view about the readiness of your own organisation for international trade,” she says. “Having the resources, knowledge and skills in place is key.”  

That’s something else for marketers to digest and point out where necessary. They should also prepare to be creative – to trust their judgement if they think the board might be missing a trick.

For instance, as official guidance from the FSB points out, there’s a common misunderstanding about what constitutes exporting: “Many small businesses believe it must involve a physical product, and that services such as graphic design and consultancy cannot be exported or don’t count.” 

Seek support where needed

Finally, marketers should never shy away from seeking help, or impressing upon management the need for it. More than half of SMEs surveyed in the FSB survey had gone it alone when exporting, and, where they’d looked for support, 37% turned to government. However, the FSB observes that face-to-face networking and peer-to-peer advice is crucial, “enabling and inspiring… at all stages of the exporting journey.”

Marketers should evaluate whatever is on offer and seek support where possible. Other than from government sources, there may be an option to join a trade delegation. Alternatively, businesses are advised to speak to their local Accredited Chamber of Commerce for practical support with the basics of exporting and the nitty-gritty of documentation and payment methods. One thing’s for sure – the moment a company is bitten by the export bug, marketing managers will have their hands full.

Andrew Mourant
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