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How to find your competitive advantage in a new market.

What works at home might not work abroad.

Woman business owner

What makes your business unique in a foreign market? How do you stand out from all the others competing for buyers’ attention on an international scale? Having a clear understanding of your competitive advantage is critical for any business — but even more so when looking to begin the exporting process. 

“Concisely and effectively identifying what you do differently than your competitors, and the expected benefits, is critical,” says Andrea Gaunt, a Global Trade director with Export Development Canada (EDC).  In order to do this, she explains, you need to fully understand what competitive advantages you have over your key competitors. “Is it lower cost, higher quality, increased efficiencies, more environmentally friendly? Once you can clearly identify these benefits, you need to communicate them.”

To help find and leverage your company’s competitive advantage, Andrea suggests three key steps: 

Start with local market knowledge.

Before you begin exporting, you’ll have to do some work to better understand the market you’re selling into — and whether your current value proposition will still be a good fit. 

EDC’s website is a great place to find market-specific resources, including country and market information, Global Economic Outlook reports, and TradeInsights, a searchable hub of EDC’s expert knowledge. Companies that are export-ready can also speak directly with the EDC Export Help Team, and you can consider connecting with the Trade Commissioner Service (TCS) in markets of interest. These offices are located around the world and across Canada and are well connected in most global markets.

“For the most part, your key competitive differentiators should remain relatively consistent.  What may change is which “products” and benefits you focus on based on the specific needs of your customers.”

You may also find help through your own network (if you’ve built a strategic one). Non-competitive, successful suppliers already in the region you’re looking to export into can inform you of the key factors needed to turn local leads into solid prospects. And never underestimate the power of talking with potential customers. Find out where their needs are and how you can meet them better than the competition. 

This approach worked well for Dannah Davies, founder of Alberta-based Sweetsmith Candy Co. “Every product will be different, however, in my experience, the best way to find your competitive advantage is to listen to your customers and find the gap in the market,” she explains, looking back on her exporting journey. “After some small adjustments, packaging was a quick win, as our export partners loved our retro appeal. Additionally, I discovered the demand for gluten free, vegan, and sugar-free products in my category — so I began to promote that more visibly.” 

Tailor your unique selling proposition to the new market.

Having done your research, you can now tailor your approach to the specific market you’re looking to enter. While there are times when a product and a unique selling proposition can be replicated across markets, often businesses will need to make some adjustments — from market to market, or even from buyer to buyer.  

For the most part, your key competitive differentiators should remain relatively consistent.  What may change is which “products” and benefits you focus on based on the specific needs of your customers. Depending on the kind of product or service you’re selling, these factors will vary considerably. 

Start by examining the criteria your potential customers use when evaluating products like yours. For example, if your solution requires long-term service or support, you’ll need to consider in-market infrastructure as part of your value proposition. Conversely, a consumer product that’s simple to understand will focus on other attributes that differentiate it from the competition. 

Consider the success of Connie Lo and Laura Burget, founders of Three Ships, a natural beauty brand sold in more than 1,000 stores across North America, including Whole Foods and Target. “Within the beauty space, press and consumers love ‘new-ness’. We lean into this when launching into a new market by stirring up excitement with consumers to get them to try us out,” they explain. “In addition, aligning ourselves with well-established and reputable retailers when we launch into a new market gives us a competitive advantage, as we are able to piggy-back off of their brand recognition and consumer base.”

Whatever approach you take, remember to keep it simple. Prospective customers will ultimately want to understand, in very short order, what you can do for them. How can you solve their problems and what benefits can they reasonably expect to achieve?  

Adjust when necessary to remain competitive. 

Knowing who your competition is and what their capabilities are helps with differentiation. When you understand the capabilities of the local suppliers, you can look for gaps between what they’re delivering and the anticipated needs of potential clients. But you also need to be aware that your competition will adapt and change.  

“The goals and strategies of your clients should be a guiding light on areas of innovation that are needed to remain relevant.”

Suzie Yorke, CEO and founder of Love Good Fats, knew what her product offered that others didn’t — a unique combination of ingredients, quality, and taste. She was also aware that there would be copycats, making speed and scale strategic drivers. “We didn’t want to have a bunch of US competitors beat us to the market,” she says. “Lots have jumped in, but we are first, and now benefit from being on the shelves of many retailers and selling well — having had a bit of a head start.”  

From finding more efficient ways to deliver your solution, to adding on or highlighting new features that set you apart, responding to the changing competitive landscape is an ongoing process. The goals and strategies of your clients should be a guiding light on areas of innovation that are needed to remain relevant.

While it may seem like a lot to consider when starting out on the exporting journey, there’s a good chance you’re already more prepared than you realize. “Ultimately, today’s marketplace is very global,” Andrea Gaunt says. “So most suppliers are competing against global competitors whether they’re selling domestically or internationally.” 

Getting clear on what sets you apart and remaining nimble and ready to adapt will ensure success beyond Canadian borders.