21 February 2014

Internationalisation - a solution to get your troubles far away?

Internationalisation is often seen as a trick that drives company's troubles away. This is not the case, however. For example, if the choice of the first target countries, finding channel partners or optimum location for your own sales office are initially the key issues, essential homework has not been done. Then you need a lucky breakAnd although you need luck in the business world, you must make every effort to try to improve your odds.

A structured approach to internationalisation is connected to the company's objectives, strategy, competences and resources. In this case, it is not a question of tricks, but of evaluation, if it makes sense – and in what way - to aim for international markets. This post tackles the following core questions of internationalisation:
  • Why to enter new international markets?
  • Which are the key issues when planning internationalisation?
  • How to build internationalisation in a systematic way?
These questions are relevant, regardless of whether a company is small or large, whether it is already making business in some foreign countries or is purely a domestic market or startup business. The post focuses on issues that are directly linked to revenue-generating market operations. Thus, for example, manufacturing or R&D resource driven foreign operations are not discussed here.

Why international markets

In most cases market expansion is driven by the reasons related to objectives or a business idea of a company, its products or customer relationships.

Probably the most common reason for internationalisation is the desire to grow. It might be too difficult to increase market share in the currently served markets, or extension of the product range is not considered lucrative enough. Operating across borders can also be a basic premise for the business; for example, many startups coming from smaller countries find their domestic markets far too small to support a profitable business.

Especially growth companies seek to aggressively increase the value of the company: e.g. to improve access to financing or to have better financing terms. Bigger potential markets and initial success in these markets will significantly raise the value of the company and its prestige among important stakeholders.

The most advanced and demanding customers greatly assist in creation of such product functionalities, which also a wider market and laggards will find useful later. So, for example, Swedish car manufacturers were for a long time deemed the pioneers in the area of security, so cooperating with them was good for success also elsewhere. Today, Germans are leaders in many vehicle technologies, so the market pulls keen supplier companies.

Many businesses have found that they cannot find customers for their products on the domestic market. The reason may be would-be customers´ lack of courage to adopt new solutions or business models enabled by them, or simply conservatism of an industry and its playersFor example, a Finnish machinery component supplier, Visedo, were forced to seek first clients in Germany, Austria and France, because domestic players were not forward-looking enough to take the new solution.

Key issues in internationalisation planning

By identifying the business drivers of internationalisation, we can also evaluate globalisation activities conducted so far. They may turn out to be either a great platform to scale the business considerably or it might be best to forget them, because their value is null and void, or they would put the company in the wrong direction.

After this, we will look at how company business idea and strategy affect on global expansion. In a similar manner, we will study in more detail company's products and total offering to customers, its differentiation strategies on the market as well as its customer-facing strategies. This will be used to create an overview of the capabilities and resource gaps that need to be overcome before one can expect success in the new markets. 

Business concept and strategy

A company's business idea defines the target customers, its offering and how the offerings are produced and made available for customers' use. If a company is customer-centric, its target segments and their needs also strongly influence offering properties. When globalising the key is to understand how well the new market customer segments and their needs correspond to the ones in the existing marketMany companies, however, have a technology or product based strategy. This emphasis the need to find in the new markets customer segments and customers that find company technology or product features compelling and value generating.

As a result, any plans to internationalise raise the following questions:
  • Is the business model in today's market well-tested and can it be replicated to new, international markets?
  • Is there willingness and ability to change the current model and how much?
Most of the incumbent companies will end up on the fact that the way of working of the home market cannot and should not be directly copied into new markets. On the other hand, if the business is created global from scratch, as in the case of, e.g. cloud service or application startups, the biggest challenges will again be product, differentiation and customer interface related ones.


Absolute requirements of the market, customer preferences and total offering required by customers are the key product related dimensions. The Internet and social media tools have brought tremendous agility and cost efficiency to the understanding of these issues.

The absolute requirements are usually easy to understand and find out. They include local government approvals and other compulsory localisations. The latter include, inter alia, translations of marketing and user documentation and support of local standards or practises. For example accounting programs require support of local regulations.

More challenging is to evaluate new customer preferences in target countries and their influence on product properties. Of course, there are self-evident things, such as the need to adapt sizing of clothing company collections when moving from Northern Europe to Southern Europe or South East Asia. When we move from technical characteristics to emotional likes and dislikes, local preferences start to dominate. For example, a children's outdoor clothing manufacturer, Reima, has discovered that in Russia, consumers prefer different colours in children´s winter clothes compared to Finland. Increasing global uniformity of values, practises and consumption have created very homologous, international segments - in these cases the need for local preference modifications is small. E.g. many Internet consumer service companies take advantage of this.

Also in new markets, customers usually expect to have a total solution. In many cases, it may significantly differ from the one in established markets. When complementing products or services require external partners, availability and access to them in target markets should be separately assessed.


It is important to be different from competitors, because without it, a company needs to typically compete on price. And because most of the competitors have the same customer value-adding product features, differentiation based on artificially created new product features will succeed rarely. Unless there is something new in the product or business model that clients really appreciate, the solution is to look at a company and product image - which again puts emphasis on company's positioning and branding.

Differentiation formulae of the domestic market is not necessarily transferable to the new target countries. For example, a clothing and textile design house, Marimekko, have a strong brand in Finland supported by a long history, distinctive, locally-luminous leading figures and unique collections with locally well-known designers. When company activities have become more globalised, it has been noted that the domestic brand concept is not necessarily bringing success in other markets.

It is essential to understand that a company and its products do not have to be widely known in the new market, as long as it is well-known in the target customer groups. Who, for example, knows Wärtsilä and its ship engines, if one is not belonging to their target customer groups? In addition to being able to create awareness of the product, it is important that the company's products have a reasonably good reputation and that the target customers are hungry for these products. When we go into a new market, a company usually starts from scratch: it is not known and the clients do not have a special longing for its products - on the other hand, it still has a very neutral reputation. It is worth considering how much, for example, current market references, globalised sourcing decisions and consumption habits, as well as international operations of existing clients could help in the development of the brand. And it is always possible to re-position the company completely, at least in the international markets.

Customer acquisition and retention

Although business idea and strategy, products and total offering as well as differentiation in the new markets would be okay, no success will come without being able to acquire and retain customers. Looking this another way: even the best systems, people and partnerships for demand creation, deal closing and customer loyalty do not bring results, if the previously discussed basics are not in good shape.

The essential steps of the customer relationship cycle include creating awareness among potential customers, building interest and willingness to buy, deal closing and customer retention. If a company is capable of differentiating itself in the market, it is already a good start. A model that has been developed and tested in the domestic markets and that is capable of generating enough demand and revenues, is a good basis for developing activities in the new markets, too.

The key is to understand to what extent the established market practises are suitable for the new markets: which of them can be utilised and what kind of capabilities and resources the company has to change the existing way of working. For example, use of media advertising, solution sales process renewal or web enabled customer service could be considered as corrective tools.

Entering new markets will be most often done with thin investment and expense structureFortunately, different types of Internet and social media based marketing, sales and customer relationship management tools provide cost-effective ways to get ahead. A more traditional approach is to build partnerships based marketing and sales activities: the danger is loosing touch of customers and the market, which, at worst, will soon destroy company's competitiveness.

Systematic internationalisation

After own motives and capabilities in relation to the company´s business objectives have been studied, the decision can be either to go forward or to focus on other business initiatives that are more lucrative or urgent.

If it is decided to continue, a preliminary assessment of capability and resource gaps in the internationalisation should be made. It is also important to determine whether the gaps should be filled with building the capabilities and resources in-house or whether partnerships would be the solution. For example, a company may decide to build sales, marketing and customer service capabilities in the new target countries by itself or it can rely on channel partners.

When still known gaps in the market information have been filled in, a detailed plan for the internationalisation can be made with priorities, timings and budget. At this stage, the target market and channel partner selection issues are already relevant. 


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