The first time I saw the word "Canada," it was on the back of a book above a bar code. I was six, and after a teacher explained to me that Canada was a country just like the one I lived in, I told her that I felt sorry for Canadians -- they had to pay more for the same books!

I have since learned about international currency and exchange rates.

Last week, I spent a few days vacationing in Toronto. At first, aside from using Canadian dollars, I felt as if I hadn't even left San Francisco. 

But as I spent more time as an American consumer in the Canadian city, I saw occasional differences between the ways international businesses position certain products and experiences in the Canadian versus American market. The more examples I saw, the more I realized that outside their native country, established American brands are actually startups, needing to validate consumer pain points and demand, then make necessary changes in order to serve the new market.

Sometimes, translating people's needs is straightforward.

For example, I drove by a "PFK" whose logo I immediately identified as that of KFC. PFK stands for "Poulet Frit Kentucky" and is the literal French translation for "Kentucky Fried Chicken." This was a voluntary decision by the company in order to literally speak the language of its target consumer. "Café Starbucks," was another example where the translated brand name was the only identifiable difference between the Canadian and American offering.

In other cases, people's perceptions speak louder than their language.

Molson Coors' Blue Moon launched last year in Canada as "Belgian Moon." It is meant to look, feel, and taste exactly like its American counterpart. So why the name change? Researching the business decision I found that it may be a way to maintain the perceived craft beer experience for Blue Moon, which was more important than translating the beer's name literally. The Canadian tagline is "Finely Crafted, Finally in Canada," and  the press release focuses on that craft process, explaining how the beverage "was inspired by the flavorful Belgian Wits of Belgium." Further, "Belgian" seems to be a specific word choice, aligning with a growing popularity and desire for Belgian beers in Canada. 

Foreign Expansion isn't a one-stop destination. 

There are small ways to test consumer demand in new markets before pouring resources into large-scale growth.

In 2013, Everlane, a US-based online fashion company launched a crowdfunding campaign to test demand for its service in the Canadian market. It would only enter the new market if and when it hit a $10,000 fundraising goal. Everlane was only three years old at the time, and the campaign enabled it to learn and answer questions about its new target market before expending heavy resources and effort. The company explained, "So many retailers enter new markets with little knowledge of whether there's excitement there. As a young company running a lean business, we want to tread carefully and be smart about our next moves." Canadian shoppers who pledged money to the campaign received Everlane perks and credit, which served as a way for the company to learn more about their interests and if and how they differed from those of Americans. The company hit its fundraising goal and launched its Canadian offering shortly after.

Regardless of size, expansion is a universal business goal.

While these examples are specific to foreign expansion, they are also applicable to building a product within an initial market or expansion within a territory. Sometimes, it can be as simple as ensuring that your product speaks the same language as your consumer base, while other times it requires speaking to unspoken consumer needs. It's a challenging problem to solve, but success is easy to measure: No matter what their native language, all consumers let their wallets have the final say.

Published on: Jul 18, 2016
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