BRITISH COMPANIES CROSS THE ATLANTIC
Next month a large group of British business people are going to America on a venture which may generate export earnings for their companies' shareholders in years to come. A long list of sponsors will support the initiative, which will involve a ￡3-million media campaign and a fortnight of events and exhibitions. The ultimate goal is to persuade more Americans that British
companies have something to interest them.
While there have been plenty of trade initiatives in the past, the difference this time round is that considerable thinking and planning have gone into trying to work out just what it is that Americans look for in British products. Instead of exclusively promoting the major corporations, this time there is more emphasis on supporting the smaller, more unusual, niche businesses.
Fresh in the memories of all those concerned is the knowledge that America has been the end of many a large and apparently successful business. For Carringtons, a retail group much respected by European customers and investors, America turned out to be a commercial disaster and the belief that they could even show some of the great American stores a retailing trick or two was
Polly Brown, another very British brand that rode high for years on good profits and huge city confidence, also found that conquering America, in commercial and retailing terms, was not as easy as it had imagined. When it positioned itself in the US as a niche, luxury brand, selling shirts that were priced at $40 in the UK for $125 in the States, the strategy seemed to work. But once its management decided it should take on the middle market, this success rapidly drained away. It was a disastrous mistake and the high cost of the failed American expansion plans played a large role in its declining fortunes in the mid-nineties.
Sarah Scott, managing director of Smythson, the upmarket stationer, has had to think long and hard about what it takes to succeed in America and she takes it very seriously indeed. 'Many British firms are quite patronising about the US,' she says. They think that we're so much more sophisticated than the Americans. They obviously haven't noticed Ralph Lauren, an American who has been much more skilled at tapping into an idealised Englishness than any English company.
Also, many companies don't bother to study the market properly and think thatBECause something's successful in the UK, it's bound to be successful over there. You have to look at what you can bring them that they haven't already got. On the whole, American companies are brilliant at the mass, middle market and people who've tried to take them on at this level have found it very difficult.'