Healthy exports to the US, naturally

Hilton Herbs boosted the appeal of their herbal products for animals to the American market by using the Export Marketing Research Scheme.

Hilton Herbs was established by Hilary and Tony Self in the stable yard of their Victorian farmhouse in Surrey in 1990. The company makes herbal supplements for animals and supports customers with a dedicated helpline, providing in-depth information on herbal and complementary healthcare for animals.

All Hilton Herbs products are developed by a qualified medical herbalist. Now based in rural Somerset on a purpose-built manufacturing facility, the company employs 18 people.

Hilton Herbs had already benefited from DIT support through the Passport to Export and Gateway to Global Growth programmes and their International Trade Adviser (ITA), Hilary Charman, had been instrumental in guiding their export strategy. Indeed, in October 2009 in recognition of their contribution to UK exports, Hilton Herbs was awarded the Department for International Trade Award for Somerset’s Exporter of the Year.

Developing the US market

However, despite all their success at home, sales to the USA had been frustratingly low, in part due to a sub-performing distributor. In 2010, having severed ties with the distributor, Hilton Herbs were free to develop the US market.

“We had already invested in some warehouse space in the States,” explained Martin Brooks, Head of Export for Hilton Herbs, “but we just knew our sales should be more. We didn’t know what we were doing wrong!”

It was their ITA, Hilary, who recommended the Export Marketing Research Scheme. The EMRS is a DIT scheme providing professional advice and funding to help businesses understand the dynamics of a potential overseas market before creating an appropriate strategy for launching in this market. There is a nationwide team of professional Research Advisers to support individual companies.

Check out our top 10 tips for doing business with the USA article should you want to follow Hilton Herbs’ lead in trying to crack the US.

Creating market appeal

Clive Hogan, Research Adviser for the South West, helped Martin to create a market research plan, identifying the key decisions Hilton Herbs wanted to make, specifically:

  • How would Hilton Herbs’ products need to be adapted to appeal to the American market?
  • How should they be promoted, taking into account the cultural differences?
  • Should the warehouse be kept or would additional routes to market be required?
  • How could the overall Hilton Herbs branding message be improved?

The research plan then detailed the relevant information required to enable these decisions.

In the spring of 2011, Martin travelled to the east coast of the United States from Atlantic City up to Connecticut, then around Pennsylvania and Philadelphia to conduct research interviews with a range of distributors, veterinarians (very important in the US market), industry experts and customers in retail outlets.

“For some of the customer interviews, we didn’t tell them we were from Hilton Herbs, which gave some very insightful responses!” laughed Martin.

The research provided very useful findings and highlighted some surprising cultural differences.

“On the shelf, in the store environment, our packs just got lost amidst all the other products on offer,” explained Martin.

In addition, many of the product names just didn’t ‘translate’ well; for example, the supplement called ‘Veteran’ conjured up images of Vietnam soldiers rather than older animals!

Hilton Herbs’ product literature was also found to be sub-optimal for the American market. American customers wanted quick information and the brochure was simply too detailed for them.

Regarding their supply chain, the ability to supply product quickly through Hilton Herbs’ US warehouse was favourably received, but using a network of distributors throughout the US being supplied from this warehouse, was found to be the ideal route to market.

Open to Export’s articles on getting started with market research and understanding cultural differences in your selected markets may be useful for readers interested in replicating this success story.

Revising and refining

As a consequence of the research, the entire Hilton Herbs packaging range was revised, introducing clear colour-coding for each product group (see above) with corresponding coloured packaging and promotional materials, including a clear wall-chart for easy product selection.

The range of product sizes for the US was also refined in line with their needs. The product brochure has been simplified and uses the same colour-coding and many of the product names have been clarified.

In addition, the research was fundamental in the creation of the new company strapline, “We used to say ‘The Natural Answer’ but then one of the shop-owners said, “Answer to what?” and we realised we’d perhaps been a little clever, so we changed it to the much clearer, ‘Natural Supplements for Animals’.”

Hilton Herbs also created support packs for the increased distributor base, comprising web-based training modules, simplified training materials and Facebook and Twitter sites.

Since the EMRS trip, Hilton Herbs sales to the USA have doubled and now account for 24 per cent of turnover. In addition, the new clearer packaging and materials have enhanced the image of the Hilton Herbs brand throughout the rest of the world.

Hilton Herbs were delighted to be recognised yet again, being awarded the Somerset Exporter of the Year 2012, and for their Marketing and Promotion at the awards in 2013.

“The great thing about the EMRS, and the reason we learnt so much, was that it took us out of our ‘bubble’ and into the market place we were trying to enter giving us the chance to look at our products from a customer perspective which was invaluable,”enthused Martin. “It was so much richer and more engaging than just doing desk research and gave us the opportunity to concentrate and focus on our strategy.”

Hilton Herbs

Export Marketing Research Scheme

Sectors: Food & Drink
Countries: South West England and United States
Topics: Localisation and Market Research
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