A Florida honey-seller discovered Islamic people in Saudi Arabia consume honey because the Koran hails its healing properties. A hot sauce company in Delaware found out many Swedes like spicy food. Both companies then turned their knowledge into cash--and you can do the same.
"There are always opportunities," says Andrew Erlich, president of Erlich Transcultural Consultants, a Woodland Hills, California, firm that advises companies on social policy, cultural marketing and customer service issues. "[But] it's rare to see a company do it right the first time."
To help you get it right, here are six tips for tapping cultural niches.
1. Look for joint ventures. That's what Tropical Blossom Honey Co. in Edgewater, Florida, did. The $4 million family-owned firm used the U.S. Department of Agriculture's trade matching service to locate the U.S. rep for a Saudi company that was looking for a new honey supplier. Tropical Blossom now ships approximately one-third of its $2 million in exports to the Middle East.
2. Match your product to something that's already popular. "I try to increase sales by matching our sauces with [local] dishes," says Chip Hearn, the COO and owner of Peppers, a hot sauce producer and retailer in Dewey Beach, Delaware.
3. Find a key contact who understands the markets. Hearn traded numerous e-mails with sources in Sweden, trying to find the perfect sauce to sell there. That didn't work. Ultimately, he turned to a distributor who already knew the market.
4. Translate the meaning, not just the words, in your advertising. "You have to be really careful with the message you're trying to convey," says Howard Buford, founder and CEO of Prime Access Inc., a New York City multicultural advertising agency. For example, a razor blade company ran a TV ad in Holland that showed a woman's leg and the product's name, "Flicker." Because the word means "queer" in local slang, Dutch viewers thought the leg belonged to a transvestite.
5. Don't think you're an expert on a culture because of your own cultural roots. "I may speak Spanish, but that doesn't mean I know about a country I'm not from," says Patricia Pliego Stout, a vice chair of the Texas Association of Mexican American Chambers of Commerce. "[Speaking the language] is just the first step toward understanding a culture."
6. Care about the culture. Buford says customers will see right through you if you don't show interest in them and their culture. "If you're not authentic," he says, "you cause resentment and drive your sales down."
Christopher D. Lancette is a journalist in Atlanta who covers international topics for Hispanic Business and other publications.
If you want to break into a cultural niche, leave your sledgehammer at home--bring your ballet slippers instead.
"You can't just take your product somewhere and try to force it on everyone," says Chip Hearn, COO and owner of Peppers, a Dewey Beach, Delaware-based hot sauce company that generates approximately $1.2 million in annual sales via the Internet, catalogs, retail stores and a restaurant.
Hearn learned the hard way not to make any market assumptions. At a recent international food expo, he wanted to gain entry points in major island groups such as the Bahamas. Inspired by the abundance of dishes made with fresh fruit, he developed a new fruit-based sauce. The buyers at the fair hated it but told him they liked hot sauces. He whipped out one of his several hundred existing sauces and promptly found a brand-new market. Says Hearn, "You've got to be prepared to adapt, to think on your feet, and to try to find the best angle to make the sale."