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Nicole Chabot tells us she has one of the best jobs in the industry. It also might be one of the toughest.
It’s challenging enough to compete in the U.S. outdoor market for sales … Chabot has to focus on the rest of the world as head of international sales at Timbuk2. It’s a position in growing demand as more outdoor brands go global. There are not only language and legal barriers in selling overseas but also an understanding — and patience — for a different way of doing business, Chabot tells us. Find out: the toughest place for an outdoor brand to do business and how an international department is more like multiple businesses instead of one.
Beyond the obvious language challenges, what are some of the top differences in international sales versus sales in the U.S.?
One of the biggest differences I’ve seen lead to frustrations — mostly on the part of Americans — is our different take on the finality of any single discussion. In the U.S. we “come to an agreement” and that is how it stands day-in, day-out, until we negotiate again. In many places outside the U.S., it’s more malleable — guiding principles are appreciated, but the specifics of each opportunity may be questioned. Understanding your guardrails while enabling room for flexibility and patience can be a very valuable approach.
Second, while I hate to sound cliché, relationships do matter. Depending how you are structured, selling across an ocean is really about developing partnerships rather than one-off sales. I recall learning in business school the difference between distributive and integrative negotiations: One is to split a fixed pie while the other is to enlarge the pie. If you want to ship containers to every country, that’s a distributive, short term strategy. If you want to build a global brand, that’s about enlarging the pie through partnerships with distributors, subsidiary offices, retailers and ultimately international consumers.
What have been some of the more challenging markets? Which ones have been easier?
Russia, without a doubt, tough … from paperwork to partnerships to complexity to economic and currency swings. To the uninitiated, beware.
“Easy?” That’s the tough one to answer. Every country has its complexity or wrinkle, each is very different, almost akin to different industries within the U.S. Are there oligopolies who control access, either to the key retail players or to your consumers? Is there a dense competitive landscape with local brands who can easily provide the same product and brand consumer-promise, but at a better price and with existing local relationships? Are there local infrastructure challenges that handicap foreign brands? These can include everything from high import duties (China) to high ceilings on international e-com shipments that avoid paying any duties (Australia). Each country can be a combination of the above, but all can be solved with different strategies. Handling the international side of our businesses is more akin to a GM role than a sales-person role because it’s really multiple businesses in one. And, as for any GM, prioritizing is key, or you can easily get lost in the noise.
How do you make sure an international sales campaign/strategy translates the right message? How much are you working with locals and natives to give a kind of “ cultural copyedit” before going public?
A lot. Local participation is paramount both to ensure no errors are made, but more importantly to make sure you’re shooting in the most effective direction. The most difficult challenge is between localization and ensuring your global branding is communicated consistently in words and ethos to the consumer. The same work we’re all undertaking these days is to define with absolute clarity our apex consumer. This is an invaluable lens to apply when localizing any type of international consumer-facing communication.
When international buyers come to an American brand, are they demanding products that are unabashedly American or are they asking for more nods to local styles and trends?
The appeal of American-style rises and falls with the tide. The one vein that remains pure, attractive and quick to build emotion is authentic Americana. American products can lay claim to the term authentic in a way that few other countries can. It’s not just cowboy boots season-in/season-out, but rather that hand-crafted, made-in-a-garage with a spice of ingenuity and quality. It’s a “Get it now if you love it because we’re always looking ahead and next year we might have a new riff, but you’ll like that too,” type of spirit.
The commonality of asks from international partners/offices/buyers/consumers is to mesh local functionality requirements and possibly trends (i.e., sizing, color, specific feature sets) with the core ethos of authentic Americana that most of our brands already own.