Understanding and appreciating the US market

Guestwriter Steve Raye of Brand Action Team tells us his practical advice for exporters looking for a US importer. 

The US may be the biggest and most attractive market in the world for export brands, but securing an importer to represent your wine, spirit or beer brand can be a daunting task.  One great resource is Deborah Grey’s How to Import Wine. An Insider’s Guide. For those of you with limited time, here’s a précis of the key elements that will make success more likely.

The first is to learn and understand the intricacies of the American market and know the fundamental difference between importer and distributor to the shibboleths such as “franchise states.” 

Identifying candidates is second. You can create your target list by using tools such as LinkedIn, asking your personal network for referrals and recommendations, and subscribing to industry newsletters and monitoring news of changes and relationships. Beverage Trade Network is a good tool and for larger enterprises able to afford bespoke, our ImporterConnect service may be appropriate.

You have to be specific in identifying what criteria are critical to you: size and scope including turnover, personnel resources, and national vs regional or state coverage etc.  Also take into account whether the importer has a distribution arm. Some importers do, and many distributors function as importers via DI orders.

Then there is traditional versus non-traditional. By traditional we mean companies whose primary function is importing and marketing agency brands. This spans the range from transnationals such as Diageo and Pernod Ricard, to specialist importers like Palm Bay and Wm. Deutsch that specialise in certain categories and countries.

Think beyond those to alternative solutions that may be a better fit for your brand. Nationally licensed service import companies such as MHW, retail buying groups like the Wine and Spirits Guild, large state or national chains such as BevMo! and Total Wine. Consider whether setting up your own operation with a family member resident in the US makes sense, or going totally non-traditional with an e-commerce model.

All have differing strengths and weaknesses but you need to do the due diligence in exploring them to find the right strategy for you.

What’s in it for me? It’s not about you it’s about the importer.  Make sure you fully understand what they are looking for. They are primarily interested in growing their business. If you can present your company as a solution to their problem, you’re much more likely to be successful. Remember, most of the people you’ll be talking to are very busy running their existing business. Generally speaking, they are not actively hunting for new brands.  They may be receptive to what you have to offer but only insofar as they feel they have the expertise to develop and grow, and the brands represent unique positioning that can further their business goals.

That’s the practical side, but also consider the emotional side. You need to make sure you are “sympatico” in terms of personal chemistry, complementary business goals and operating style.

Key questions you need to investigate about them: What is their market reach, portfolio strategy, market niche? What resources do they have in terms of sales and marketing personnel, transparency in reporting, receptiveness in collaborating with you in marketing?  Does their portfolio and focus fit with your US strategy?

Key questions they’ll have about you are, do your brands represent a gap in their portfolio they are looking to fill?  Do you have existing U.S. volume they can take over and grow? Do your company and brands enhance their image, awareness or profitability? Are you financially sound and have a budget to invest and support the brand?

And don’t forget, finding an importer you want to talk to is step one.  You’ll need a strategy to get their attention and then get a meeting. A common refrain we hear is: “I get 100 calls a week; I take less than 10, and might ultimately have a meeting with one.”

Once you have the meeting scheduled, make sure you are fully buttoned up and focused. Do your homework, take the time to investigate and learn about them so you can present your opportunity in its best light relative to their business strategy. Also, have a defined (meaning written) strategy for how and what you want to accomplish in the US.

If you do make it through the constraint of the narrow part of the hourglass, recognise the real work is just starting. You’ll need to consult an attorney with experience in wine/spirit/beer import contracts, a strategy for managing existing inventory, a plan for representation, management and oversight of the relationship, and finally, ongoing support such as winemaker visits and shared marketing support programming.