How SMEs can unlock new markets through the power of collaboration
It can be a dog-eat-dog world out there in business. In an increasingly globalised world, competition is always growing. While this affords a wealth of opportunity, it can also bring challenges, especially for small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) trying to make their voices heard in a crowded marketplace.
What once was local has now gone global. If you’re a business getting off the ground, you’re not just competing with those in your own town or city, not with those in your state, your country, or your continent even. These days, if someone in Beijing has a better offer and a means of delivery then you could be out of business.
While the idea of competing on a global level can be daunting for small businesses, it can also be a colossal opportunity. Going global and tapping into new markets gives companies huge potential for growth. But while many SMEs would relish the opportunity to engage with international customers, getting your message out there and connecting with different cultures isn’t always that easy.
Messaging and strategy are key when branching into new markets, and for those SMEs who don’t have an Amazon-sized budget to hire a high-flying team to figure it out, they may need to get more creative.
This is where university collaboration may be able to help, providing a far more cost-effective way to get that insight. That’s exactly what family-fun macadamia grower and muesli producer Brookfarm found out when they teamed up with Southern Cross University.
Started over 20 years ago by Pam and Martin Brook, Brookfarm places sustainability and the environment at the centre of everything they do. Starting off as a small family operation with their two sons, Eddie and Will, ferrying homemade muesli down to the farmers market, they have now grown to a 70-strong workforce that sells Brookfarm produce internationally.
Their message of sustainability and fairness was one that resonated well beyond the borders of their native Byron Bay, Australia, and started catching the eye of Chinese consumers about five years ago.
The prospects of tapping into China was obviously an attractive one. With a population of 1.4 billion and a booming middle class, the market could prove highly lucrative. But Brookfarm needed help grasping the characteristics and cultural differences of this new market, as well as assistance in how to tailor their messaging appropriately.
In partnership with Southern Cross, Brookfarm took on three Chinese international students through the university’s Volunteer Connect work integrated learning programme; a scheme co-funded through Study NSW’s Partner Projects programme.
Business students Nanxi (Nancy) Liu, Xinwen (Wendy) Fu and Qunyao (Ann) Liu joined the company’s sales and marketing team to share their insights on a range of Brookfarm breakfast products and help conceptualise and develop a Chinese-language product information website.
Brookfarm’s Head of Marketing, Clinton Bown, said he found the collaboration “enlightening.”
The value came from working with “students from a range of different Chinese cultures… that culturally are very different, even within their own country,” Bown told U2B.com.
“For me, to be able to understand that through dialogue with them and through them helping shape the project… that helped us rethink and reposition our online strategy in China,” he explains.
In this short 15-hour exchange, the students were able to provide insights that the Brookfarm team were previously unaware of. What stood out as particularly valuable was the influence of western culture and how it differs between each of the three provinces – in particular, their openness to western food.
While Nancy’s family and upbringing were very familiar with western culture and food, making them more likely to choose a western-style breakfast like Brookfarm’s muesli, others were less receptive.
Both Wendy and Ann came from more traditional families who hold traditional Chinese customs central to their worldview and, ultimately, their product choice.
“It was very apparent to me that family, and the trust in a family, has a lot to do with consumer behaviour in China,” Bown explains.
“Therefore, the messaging that we communicate in China is far more focused around the fact that we are a family business and we have family values, and I think that helps us communicate our brand effectively, not just in Australia but in China.”
The exchange not only gave Brookfarm a clearer vision in their marketing and online strategy, but it also provided the three business students with valuable experience in a growing company.
While learning the theory behind successful business practice is an invaluable skill passed down to students in the lecture theatre, the experience of putting some of those theories to practice can prove invaluable to a student’s understanding and future employability.
This approach of work integrated learning (WIL) is far from new in Australia’s universities, but it is on the rise with students, particularly at the undergraduate level, placing a high value on work placements.
This is a big boon for businesses, especially SMEs in which the value of a skilled graduate student or enthusiastic undergrad can make a tangible difference to a company’s approach. As more students opt for WIL courses, more businesses can benefit from this unique expertise, regardless of industry or size.
Without the Southern Cross WIL programme, Brookfarm would have had to look elsewhere for the valuable insights into a burgeoning marketplace. As Bown points out: “As marketers, you always have to prove your theories.”
For Brookfarm, the student volunteers became their “test environment.” Rather than seeking the resources elsewhere, Brookfarm was able to capitalise on having a trio of young, business-savvy, Mandarin-speaking students willing to test drive and tweak their approach.
As a project counting towards their degree, and the chance to learn from a functioning team, the experience that Wendy, Nancy, and Ann gained from their experience helped in their studies and in their future job hunt.
But it also enabled Brookfarm to embrace their ethos as a teaching organisation and expand their contribution to the international student community, while also gaining valuable insight that translates into tangible business results.
Brookfarm now counts 30 percent of its sales as exports, with China as the largest buyer. Half of those sales are online, helped along in part by the streamlined and targeted online strategy developed with Southern Cross University.
“The exchange that a business can get from welcoming young student thinking into their business is that they can challenge and test new ideas and also contribute to their education,” said Bown. “It’s a great exchange, a fair exchange, and a wonderful exchange in group thinking.”