What are the four market entry strategies?

Image of the post author Jodie Shaw

How you enter a market often dictates whether you’ll be successful there. Different approaches all have pros and cons – and deciding which to choose is as much about market insight as it is financial logic. So what are the four market entry strategies?

Export? Licensing? Franchising? Partnering? JVs? M&A? There are many ways to get into a new market. What situations typically suit each variety? What do you need to know about the market to select the most appropriate options? How do we assess the strengths and weaknesses – and their long-term effect on your business? Here’s our brief overview of your options for an entry strategy into a new market.

Early exposure: the passive way in

Online retail – and social media these days – mean brand exposure in new markets has become relatively easy. Social media shopping, for instance, is becoming an increasingly popular entry point for brands into new markets, particularly if they’re picked up by influencers. This could be by traditional media outlets (like fashionable magazines), web-based trend-setters (such as popular tech review channels on YouTube) or specialist social media influencers on global platforms such as Instagram and TikTok. Most markets have their own versions of these channels – and there are plenty of popular global options, too.

(Caveat: many global influencers, and those within markets, may need inducement to feature products or services. While ‘accidental’ market exposure is possible, you’re still likely to need some kind of strategy for this kind of introduction.)

But e-commerce can be a double-edged sword. Yes, consumers might get exposure to a brand online. But if it’s not available in their market, they can end up buying the next best thing that is available. Your brand could be doing an excellent category building job for local rivals.

It’s also worth looking out for platforms that are not global. In many markets, local e-commerce platforms have emerged. Any attempt to exploit the market will rely on having access to it. (We look into that further in our guide to entering emerging markets.)

In addition to working with local platforms, brands need to consider carefully how to fulfil orders and handle customer relations. Managing all these elements through third parties in a straight commercial relationship can work well. That said, there’s a massive gulf between entering a market virtually via e-commerce and getting ‘boots on the ground’.

That’s not just about commitment. Each of the third parties you work with is taking a chunk of your profit margin. And in some cases – particularly with perishable or heavyweight products, and especially services – the arm’s length approach just won’t work. To access that pool of consumers, you’re going to need a local presence. Here are some main routes in.

1. Structured exporting

The default form of market entry. Consumers and companies in other markets can easily buy your products wholesale, sort out logistics and handle local marketing. Increasingly, brands can ship internationally – riding the kind of passive market entry discussed above – but assigning a local trusted distributor to conduct transactions with your buyers, and even partnering directly with major wholesalers or retailers, is a perfectly good way in.

Working with the right partners can be a make-or-break decision. So thoroughly researching the key players, their terms of trade and their local reputations is vital. Even seemingly innocuous business practices can have a big effect on the way products are handled, sold and supported.

Having local agents doesn’t mean you can ignore the nuances of the local market. It still pays to get under the skin of local retail, for example, understanding any patterns of consumption and thinking about local tastes and behaviours that might shift how a product is presented. Even in an arms-length distribution agreement, it pays to tailor a product to local preferences. Chocolate brands, for example, must cater to both local biases on the flavour and texture of their product – but also the local climate. Getting under the skin of target consumers in new markets is something we’ve supported many businesses with as they’ve entered new territories.

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2. Licensing and franchising

Licensing is giving legal rights to in-market parties to use your company’s name and other intellectual property. Any licensee can produce and sell products under your name or offer services using your brand. In exchange, you get royalties or other payments. It can be an effective light-touch way of entering a market, especially if you’re a service business that needs a local workforce; or your products would benefit from local manufacturing.

But it’s not all plain sailing. How a licensee behaves towards customers, the quality of their output and the local spin they put on your product can affect the brand. That means thorough due diligence is needed on potential partners, and brands that come to the table with detailed research on their new market are much more likely to be able to tie down any important factors affecting those decisions into a contract.

Franchising is similar to licensing but requires a lot more heavy lifting up front. As well as researching any new market before entering it, brands should think about how they will structure any franchise agreement – which will require additional research into local legal structures and potential franchisees; working out what the franchise buys (for some businesses it’s little more than a licence; for others, it’s a suite of processes, marketing support materials and even hardware that come with the deal); and how they might be able to handle disputes with franchisees later.

3. Direct investment

For many companies, setting up a fully-fledged operation in the new market is a big commitment – but also brings huge advantages. This kind of ‘greenfield’ investment – ‘greenfield’ meaning the establishment of new facilities – means complete control over the operations in the new market. Many countries welcome foreign investment of this kind.

Some companies will choose only to enter new markets where this kind of investment is possible – for a variety of reasons. If the product is particularly sensitive to different kinds of handling, for example, or needs to be manufactured to particular tolerances, ownership provides a reassuring level of control.

If that’s the case, the legal and regulatory burden of different potential markets should be a factor in the due diligence process right at the outset. Having local legal and financial advice, in additional to in-market research expertise, is essential.

4. Buying a business

International M&A is still fraught with risks and paperwork, but even in a bad year – 2019 is the last we have figures for, and we might expect 2020 to be an outlier one way or another – cross-border acquisitions accounted for $1.2 trillion. (A ‘bad year’? That was a third lower than the US$1.8 trillion in deals in 2018.) The reason? Buying an existing business is a genuine fast-track for foreign companies to enter a new market.

Market research plays an even more important role in due diligence when you’re buying a business in unfamiliar territory. The traditional metrics you might assess – and even the gut feel of key decision-makers – have to be translated through completely different lenses of cultural and market norms. (Due diligence isn’t easy on domestic M&A deals; it’s much tougher abroad…)

That’s also true, to a lesser extent, with buying a minority stake in a business in your new market. This might mean less up-front investment albeit with less control, too. But in both cases, you’re also buying into local market expertise – which can be invaluable.

That’s also the big benefit of setting up a joint venture­ (JV) – a new partnership between your company and one or more parties where the ownership is shared. You get the benefits of a greenfield start-up; a lower investment than M&A or setting up on your own; local expertise baked in; and legal status as a native in the new market. Many businesses see a JV as a turnkey project: each party brings existing expertise and capabilities to bear for fast deployment.

But be warned: joint ventures only thrive when the contractual commitments of each partner and the beneficial ownership structures are crystal clear. And some big brands have come unstuck in joint ventures where the local partner’s vision for the product or service deviates from their own. Conflict resolution mechanisms are a must. Unsurprisingly, joint ventures are more common in time-limited projects where several contractors need a legal entity to collaborate on a very specific mission – and have clear terms for the joint venture’s dissolution.

Building your intelligence network

The choice of entry route will be dictated by many factors, then – consumer habits, culture, legal status, taxes and tariffs, local business practices, the transparency you can attain around potential partners and more. As a rule of thumb, the less exposure to cost and risk you have, the less control and margin you can secure.

Arms-length surveys and analysis can only tell you so much, however. Working with international agencies who have their own people on the ground in a new market not only means better access to the nuances of consumer behaviours and local trading rules – it also means dealing with people who have first-hand experience of running a business in that market. This approach has enabled to us to successfully support clients in entering new and lucrative markets.

You can learn more about our market entry expertise, or get in touch to discuss a potential project.