U.S. Manufacturers Discuss Challenges, Rewards of International Business

U.S. Manufacturers Discuss Challenges, Rewards of International Business

When it comes to reaching international customers, U.S. companies have developed many creative techniques to overcome challenges and reap sales rewards.

Creating and promoting an internationally recognizable brand starts with developing a brand in its own backyard, says Joanne Queenin executive administrator for Sportsheets International, a pioneering brand of BDSM products, which is based in Huntington Beach, Calif.

The modern shopper wants to know that they are interacting with brands who actually care about their experience, rather than with a brand that is too big to focus on the ‘little people.’

“We’ve developed such a strong name and brand for Sportsheets for 25 years now,” Queenin said. “If you asked anyone in the industry, we are the quality and innovation leader in our category. We also take the time to develop deep relationships with our customers. Our focus on international, which is about 15 years strong now, has unique challenges in that we are not able to connect with our customers as often as we do here in the U.S. We strive to make the personal connections over and above the business ones.”

Queenin says Sportsheets travels to attend all the major tradeshows worldwide and advertises in international magazines to spread brand awareness near and far.

“We also leverage our customers’ catalogs and advertise there as well,” she said. “It’s the easiest way to reach out to a new audience.”

Sportsheets’ global marketing strategy also involves a great deal of time researching trends in fashion, customer demographics, technology and what mainstream retail brands are doing.

“Although our economies are so global now, we still recognize that different cultures and countries have different sexual trends, spending budgets and perceptions of what is beautiful,” she said.

According to Queenin, Sportsheets makes an effort to reach out in person and make phone calls despite the current predilection for email contact in today’s market place. She says it’s important to know what’s going on in people’s lives, with family, kids and even pets.

“We care,” she said. “It isn’t just business for us. We are a family-owned and run business, and we take our customer relationships to a different level.”

To overcome any packaging language barriers, Queenin says translation is key.

“Although not everything translates well all the time, we always consult with people knowledgeable with the countries’ language and culture. We feel this gives us the best chance of relaying accurately what the product is and what it does to the consumer.”

At Nasstoys in North Bergen, N.J., sales and marketing director Kathryn Hartman says that the company reaches international customers through e-marketing and advertising in international trade publications like the ETO and Sign. Nasstoys also has exhibited at the Erofame show in Hanover, Germany, although Hartman says, “the travel and extra man-hours required by staff for all of the additional data and the intensive documentation required” can take a toll.

Manufacturers like Nasstoys also rely heavily on distributors both abroad and domestically to promote their brand to their retail clientele. Nasstoys recently bolstered its international reach with the addition of a Spanish-speaking sales representative.

“We have added bilingual sales staff for the Latin market, and we hire staff who speak several languages for the European show we participate in,” she said. “We also use Google Translate. The packaging is not an issue. The politically correct terminology remains challenging as it is constantly evolving.”

Successfully growing regions for Nasstoys include the U.K. and South America, and she reports the promising picture with consumers located outside the U.S. is in part due to the fact that they like goods that come from American companies. “They like our trends,” she said.

Angela Lieben, marketing manager for Liberator, based in Atlanta, Ga., says the company has a strong history in working the international market.

“Liberator is one of a handful of American companies fortunate in having a substantially strong position within the international pleasure products market. Over the years, we’ve worked closely with both distributors and retailers in getting our products across the pond,” she says. “Our first foray into an international market began many years ago with a simple U.K. website featuring only core Liberator Shapes, products that could be shipped easily and inexpensively. Having a web presence along with having traditional print advertisements in magazines such as Cosmo U.K. and Men’s Health has helped garner more international exposure.”

Fast forward to 2015, and Lieben suggests that hiring an international business development manager, Brett Richardson, serves as a critical link for the international adult community.

“He plays an integral role in developing strategic relationships with distributors and retailers and attending E.U. erotic trade shows,” Lieben said. “Having a presence at international trade shows is vital for any company wanting to break into the international market. Just this year, Brett attended one of the largest erotic trade shows in China, where Liberator was well received. Brett is also our liaison for all of the international blog influencers and provides them with plenty of Liberator Shapes for review.”

Lieben says that being a global brand means “having to stretch beyond your limits. I’m not talking about overcoming the challenges of logistics and operations. Those are relatively easy fixes. I think building solid relationships, which come across as authentic, is probably the biggest challenge any global brand faces. It’s more than just clever marketing, pretty pictures and sales pitches; it’s about connecting with consumers on an emotional level. But to do that successfully, a brand needs to navigate the diverse cultural and social structures and understand people’s habits on a local level. The greatest challenge is understanding there is no one-size-fits-all customer.”

Lieben says she believes that creating a recognizable brand doesn’t happen overnight.

“It takes years of trial and error for a company to find just the right formula for success,” she said. “Spending a ton of money on slick advertising and marketing is one route, but is not always effective. Just because you build it does not mean they will come, so to speak.”

However, mainstream media coverage does affect the way a company is perceived and is one of the most valuable tools for creating brand recognition, she says.

“As the saying goes, advertising is expensive but PR is priceless,” Lieben said. “Press coverage translates well with consumers as it validates the brand. People know if the mainstream media can trust a brand, then they can too. Customers are more willing to engage a product when it’s coming from a third party.”

For companies looking to create more exposure internationally, she suggests hiring or working with a PR expert who knows how to navigate the diverse media landscape.

“Here’s the great thing about sex — it’s a universal language that everyone understands,” Lieben said. “Liberator is fortunate in that we are the premier manufacturer of sexual positioning aids, or what some people would call sex furniture. Our strong brand identity and visibility is something we’ve been working on for over a decade.”

Currently, she says Liberator is fully embracing the possibilities of the digital age and working closely with expert bloggers and influencers, as well as “upping the ante” when it comes to their social media presence.

“But we also feel that promoting offline is just as important as online,” Lieben said. “That’s why we provide our retailers with the proper tools and material for selling the products inside their boutiques and stores. We can deliver online promo materials for our selling partners and even create customized POS materials.”

When it comes to establishing relationships and effective communication with international distributors, according to Lieben, every distributor and retailer are different.

“That’s why we believe having one-on-one contact is essential for developing and fortifying solid relationships,” she said. “Much like long-distance relationships, we are committed to having a constant line of communication open and getting feedback.”

Because Liberator has no mechanical or moving parts, Lieben says its little instructions — and translations of them — are needed.

“Most of our packaging contains visual components and position guides which help customers envision themselves using the product,” Lieben said. “However, there are certain regions where promoting sexual wellness is a bit more complex. Not everyone speaks English. So, having effective visuals becomes extremely important for companies wanting to break through the language barrier. Liberator is instantly recognizable because of its consistent design principles. Everything from the packaging, artwork and support materials is what is designed for establishing the brand, no matter the locale.”

Liberator has experienced strong growth in European countries such as Germany, the U.K., France and the Netherlands. But the Asian market is extremely exciting.

“China is one of the regions where Liberator is experiencing phenomenal growth,” Lieben said. “We recently joined forces with Buccone. They bring top-quality sexual wellness brands into China via their wholesale distribution channels.”

Lieben says she sees a natural evolution of globalization in sexual wellness products.

“The power of the internet has changed the landscape of our industry, bringing traditional western companies to eastern regions,” she said. “The Indian market has over 1.3 billion men and women and an additional 400 million active internet users with an appetite for a demand of adult products. China is another region where sexual health and wellness is becoming more accepted. And with the growing wealth of China’s younger population, sex is big business.”

Australia is another key market with a lot of development, one that is on track to catching up to the European and North American markets. All in all, Lieben says it’s an exciting time for the adult industry.

“I think more and more people around the world are beginning to recognize the importance of sexual health, and that pleasure products play an important role in their sexual relationships,” she said. “Adult products in general, are being seen as less taboo, which is causing a swift transition toward mainstream acceptance and awareness.”

At North Hollywood, Calif.-based Doc Johnson, VP of sales and marketing Scott Watkins says he is also seeing a great deal of growth in the international sector.

“We continue to see consistent double-digit growth in the European marketplace,” he said. “Recently we have also seen an uptick in sales in South America.”

He says Doc Johnson works hard to overcome language barriers in packaging and descriptions.

“First of all, on a micro level, we invest in translating our product copy, and we try to be very diligent about that. On the majority of our product packaging, we include translations in six different languages,” he continues. “From a wider standpoint, the phrase ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ has never been truer, and we’ve been leaning heavily on the growing power and the growing value of visual content. In an age where we’re all bombarded with an excess of information on a daily basis, it’s crucial to present content in a way that rises above the noise. Effective imagery, including images, videos, gifs, memes, and so on, whether it’s presented on our website, our social media pages, our product packaging, or in person at live events, goes a long way, and there’s often no language barrier.”

To create an internationally recognizable brand, Watkins says the company relies on the internet quite effectively.

“The beauty of the internet is that its worldwide, and looking at our site statistics, international customers are searching us out,” he said. “We try to ensure that our online presence and our web presence are globally palatable for consumers.”

According to Watkins, “Today’s technology has given us a much wider reach through the advent of the internet, and instant communication on social media. Word of mouth promotion, as well as reputation management matter now more than ever. We have increasingly been focusing, especially in the past five years or so, more and more of our time and resources towards listening and monitoring what our customers are saying, interacting with them, and turning customers into brand ambassadors. The modern shopper wants to know that they are interacting with brands who actually care about their experience, rather than with a brand that is too big to focus on the ‘little people.’”

Beyond that, partnering with a variety of international retailers has helped Doc Johnson to be successful, because of their deep connection to local communities, and because they have a better understanding of their customers. “We have a dedicated sales force that travels the globe, and they act as Doc Johnson brand ambassadors through in-store trainings and regular visits to retail stores across the world,” he notes.

Patrick Lyons, VP of marketing at Pipedream, Jimmyjane and Sir Richard’s says reaching international customers at his companies means using an “amazing sales team who travel internationally to meet with customers, attend shows and ensure that our brands have a presence internationally. We also have two sales reps based in Europe, who are integral to our European presence.”

According to Lyons, “From a sales perspective, we need to understand the unique needs of each customer. There can be specific requirements for imports, currency and customs. From a product perspective language and packaging needs to be universal and have multilingual instructions.”

Lyons said the companies create internationally recognizable brands in part through strong distribution, which plays a large role in growing the company’s footprint.

“From there, we really like to work with our international customers to help drive awareness,” he said. “We rely on them to help us promote the brand in their geographic regions.”

As to language barriers in packaging, Lyons says, “Most of our packaging is produced in multiple languages. This is part of the product development cycle and translation, and it is something we have to plan for. We sell our products in over 140 different countries, so we cannot translate to every language, but we do our best to ensure we are communicating to a global audience.”

Lyons says growth is expanding for Pipedream and its sister brands in Australian and South America, and as with other U.S.-based international companies, he sees Asia as having a lot of opportunity, despite challenges due to language barriers. Lyons says that with the internet’s broad access to information, it’s easier than five or 10 years ago to connect with international clients.

At East Coast News, marketing director Anthony Pingicer explains that while the company is primarily a U.S. distributor, they also do business in Latin American countries including Mexico, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Colombia and Venezuela.

“We have sales representatives that work out of our Florida office that speak Spanish, and are able to provide customer service to our Spanish-speaking clients. People in the Latin American countries are just like anyone else, they play with toys, novelties and watch movies too.”

Andy Green, president of Xgen Products has a global reach. Based in Pennsylvania, the company attends shows like Erofame and AdultEx.

“Since we are a manufacturer as well as a distributor, it is crucial that we participate in as many events and marketing initiatives as possible,” Green relates. “Each market is different. Customers in Europe have different tastes than customers in Australia or North America. And vice versa. You have to tailor your marketing plans to each market. Knowing the likes and dislikes of customers across the globe can be challenging at times, but we believe we have a great staff and great partners that support us.”

According to Green, “Creating something that appeals to everyone is the most effective way to be successful. Being visible everywhere is the best way to promote. Industry events, trade publications, store displays, mainstream marketing and effective PR all play a role.”

At Adventure Industries, sales representative Chaney Cox says the company also has a global reach. “Our Rabbit Company and Drilldo products have broad appeal. We are highly visible in Europe, Asia, Australia and North America. We are always letting our industry partners and media know about what is coming soon.”

Cox added, “If you put out a great product, people will respond favorably no matter where they are. We try to make products that will appeal to everyone.”

Cox says she sees consistent grown in Europe and Australia. “Sexual exploration is big internationally. Topics are less taboo across the globe.”

And, at OVO Lifestyle Toys, brand ambassador Samantha Brown notes that OVO is German-designed and was founded in Europe.

“We cut our teeth in the international market, so we’ve kind of reversed it. But we attend as many industry events as possible, and try to get OVO out there as much as we can. We also have an Instagram account specifically for our Russian partners, as that is one of our largest secondary markets.”