Lifting the bar: Lessons on branding and going global

Monaghan company Combilift has revolutionised the way companies handle and store goods by maximising the capacity, safety and efficiency of their storage facilities using its specialist forklift. Exporting to 85 countries, co-founder and managing director Martin McVicar shares his insights with ThinkBusiness on creating a strong brand and what companies need do before entering export markets.

How do you develop a unique and memorable brand? 

Try and pick a niche market or opportunity where you can become the number one player. You don’t have to be a global brand to be successful as long as you become an established brand in the market segment you claim. The smaller the niche, the easier the brand is to establish. 

If you try to cover too wide a market, you’re going to get lost with all the other brands. No one will know where your brand fits into that market. At Combilift, we manufacture forklift trucks, but not the conventional kind.

“If you try to cover too wide a market, you’re going to get lost with all the other brands”

There are over 200 manufacturers of forklift trucks worldwide. A conventional forklift lifts a load and moves it. But we focused on developing a multi-directional forklift truck; it can go forward and back like a normal forklift but it also travels left and right. The value is that if a client’s handling long goods or products, our forklift truck can travel left and right. That’s the uniqueness of our product; it can handle long products in smaller spaces more safely. That’s our unique brand.

Something else which helped develop our brand was choosing a company name that almost describes what we do. Combilift does a combination of two things. Your company name doesn’t have to describe your products, but if you can get it to, the brand will be easier to build. 

Why is brand identity so important?

When we are in a market to buy something, we want value for money. But even if we can’t afford it, we look at what the best brand offers us. We look at the premium brands, even if we decide not to buy it. That’s where brand identity is so important. For a business to grow the brand needs to be established as that premium brand, so that everyone can see your product or service. If the brand identity isn’t there, your business is going to be ignored in most cases. 

“Something else which helped develop our brand was choosing a company name that almost describes what we do”

We are at a stage in a number of our markets where people looking for a combination lift are actually searching for our product. One of the ways we’ve done that is by exhibiting at trade shows. In 2019, we exhibited our forklift trucks at 92 trade shows worldwide in different industries. We get the brand out in front of clients we are targeting. Trade shows are one of the best ways we’ve established our brand overseas.

Another way to build brand identity in export markets is putting your own people on the ground. We have more than 60 technical sales people based abroad, across 20 markets. We export to 85 countries. But in the markets where we put our own people on the ground, our brand is more established. We also invest a lot in PR. It’s not just about advertising, it’s placing client case studies in industry trade publications that are relevant to that market.

How do you crack international markets? 

Man in suit behind wheel of a forklift.

When we go to a new market, instead of finding a distributor for our product, we go to meet potential users of our product. Many businesses waste a lot of time appointing distributors that they think are going to do everything for them. Many of the international markets we’ve entered, I personally visited initially. That way you get a feel of how that market operates and what clients you want to target. Business owners or managers in a company need to visit new markets, rather than sending your junior sales person.

“For a business to grow the brand needs to be established as that premium brand, so that everyone can see your product or service”

Another tool we used to get into international markets was following our customers. For example, one of our earlier clients in Germany, a company called Schueco were using our trucks in Germany and Poland and they were interested in a Combilift for Dubai. We had no clients in the Middle East at the time. My first trip to Dubai was to visit their facility and convince them that we could take care of their product there. That was how we got our first order in Dubai. This was the same way we started operating in India, through providing lifts for an Australian client’s Indian plant. We follow our customers into the markets they are growing into. We use our existing customer base and they bring us into international markets with very little investment from us.

What are the benefits of exporting?

You don’t have all your eggs in one basket. When you’re dealing in export markets, you’re spreading your risk. If one market happens to go up or down it is ok. As we’ve continued to scale our overseas markets, we broke our bigger markets into smaller territories. For instance, in Germany, we broke the market into 17 regions, with a distributor for each region. In the US, we have 49 regions and distributors. It means we’re not relying on one distributor to do everything for us. If a percentage of the regions isn’t growing, the rest are.  

“Trade shows are one of the best ways we’ve established our brand overseas”

If you’ve already invested heavily in R&D for a new product or service, exporting is one way of capitalising on that investment, rather than investing in another new product for the whole market. You’re getting a better return. Exporting is a great way of building your brand as clients in that area all talk together. 

What are the pitfalls of exporting?

In reality you’re dealing with a lot of currency fluctuations. To make it easy for our clients in overseas markets to buy our product, we price it in the local currency. If currencies fluctuate dramatically, it has a big effect on business because you can’t change prices over night. Some businesses decide to price all their products in euro and let the client deal with the fluctuation but we want to make life easy for our clients.

“Another tool we used to get into international markets was following our customers”

It is more challenging to manage a team of people in overseas markets; you don’t see them regularly and this can impact communication.

How do you know that exporting is right for your business? 

If you have IP (intellectual property) protection on your product or service, there’s no reason you can’t be successful at exporting because it makes it very challenging for someone else to make a replica of what you’re doing. If you don’t have unique IP, it could be very easy for someone to develop the same product or service as you literally overnight. 

What do businesses need to think about when considering exporting? 

To scale exports, you need to be prepared to put your own people on the ground in the markets. You need to ask whether you have enough resources in-house to support that export market, excluding resources in the market.

“Another way to build brand identity in export markets is putting your own people on the ground”

Think about whether you can deal with the new market from a language perspective. We made a very early decision to purposely only find distributors who could communicate with us in English, otherwise it would take a lot of resources. Of course, we have people who can speak relevant languages in different markets but our distributors can all communicate in English. 

An important thing to think about is whether the product can be exported cost-effectively. Check whether the freight cost is prohibitive. When we’re developing new Combilift forklift trucks we don’t just develop them to save warehouse space for our clients, we develop them so we can put them into a container for export. We design them so they drive into containers. If you can get your product into a container, it’s very cost-effective to ship it anywhere in the world. If it doesn’t fit, it’s very expensive.

“When we go to a new market, instead of finding a distributor for our product, we go to meet potential users of our product”

Another important thing to do is check whether the customs or import barrier is prohibitive. For example, when we started to export to Brazil 10 years ago, the import duty on forklift trucks was 14pc. Rather than ignoring Brazil, we worked closely with customs and showed them there was no manufacturer in Brazil making anything like our product. We got the import duty reduced to 2pc because we could demonstrate that. There is a lot of groundwork to be done but a lot to be made from exporting internationally.

Interview by Olivia McGill

Published: 27 October, 2020