Chris Forbes, Co-founder of The Cheeky Panda, reveals how he succeeded in bringing his sustainable tissue business overseas in just a year
What are the
challenges that come with international expansion? How can SMEs utilise
international markets while minimising the risks?
Going global with your business is an alluring prospect – but it is no easy feat. Taking your brand abroad comes with a series of challenges and risks involved in international expansion. However, it is possible if you have the right framework in place and a forward-thinking approach. Speaking on the second day Elite Business’ live event on March 10, Chris Forbes, co-founder of The Cheeky Panda, spoke about how to take your business overseas and build an international brand. Chris revealed how he took his business, The Cheeky Panda, to international territories just a year since launching the brand in 2016.
Chris founded The Cheeky Panda with his wife, Julie Chen, after watching people harvest bamboo on a visit to see her parents in China. Chris wanted to create a sustainable tissue brand that was biodegradable, plastic-free and wouldn’t pollute the environment – and so, The Cheeky Panda was born. The Cheeky Panda products are now being sold in over 25 countries around the world, with plans to launch in the US and China boasting an annual turnover of over £5 million.
“We picked up our first international client in 2017,” Chris said, speaking about the first time he brought the brand overseas. “We set up our first stand at the ExCel London, and it was a gathering of a lot of distributors and large retailers from around Europe. They come in there to look at British brands, to look at what’s new and what’s innovative. We picked up a company called Bio-Planet, which is one of Belgium’s largest supermarket chains So, even though we were still a relatively young company, we were just about one year old at the time, we just landed our first supermarket contract. It’s quite an interesting journey. Once you start to get one international client on board, it then becomes a lot easier to get two or three. And one of the best ways I’ve found to do this is through these shows. They are an investment and they do cost money. We spent about £3,000 and it was a bit of a risk. Because we thought, ‘are we going to see that money back’? Fortunately, because we felt we had the right products, we took the gamble and we picked up some decent sized clients. And as you can see, a year later in 2018, we went back with a much larger stand. And we picked up even larger clients.”
Chris insisted that innovation was the way forward. Chris found a way to ‘disrupt’ the markets and bring a unique product that has never been done before. With his compelling business model and sustainable brand, Chris was able to attract international clients and expand his company across different territories to the global demand for greener products.
“We’re finding innovative chains that are kind of looking for different products,” Chris said. “Food gets disrupted all the time but tissue hadn’t been disrupted for a long time. That was one of the things that compelled to come into the tissue business. Rather than just doing something that’s like a small twist of lemon on an existing theme, which is fine, but you do find yourself in a very competitive space to make it grind a little bit. When you have something that is unique and looks very modern, you can actually get quite a lot of market size quite quickly.”
Chris urged SMEs to take a step back and understand the ‘why’ behind their brand and what problems they are trying to solve with their products or services. With that in mind, SME will be better able to understand their target audience and tailor their product to the masses. Chris also urged businesses to constantly innovate and improve their product - and to not be afraid to start with a prototype and build it up along the way.
“When you’ve got a brand, it’s almost like solving a problem. The question is, why are you doing it? In 2019, there was this programme about the war against plastics’”, Chris said. “There was research showing that around 90% of all baby wipes contain plastic in them, and people are flushing them down the sewers, they’re going into the water systems, blocking the sewers... We thought we could do better than that. We thought we could create a bamboo wipe that doesn’t have plastic in it, is completely biodegradable and is made of natural water as well.”
He added: “If you are always looking for the final product, you will never get to the first product. When we started our initial product, we started with it wrapped in plastic. That was the only way we could do it... And once we started to get larger, we thought, what can we do that is better? At the end of last year, we launched tissue in packs of four in paper. No one’s ever done that before.”
Chris urged businesses to do their research and take a chance in foreign markets. Business owners may be shocked to find that their product may work better overseas than in their home country – but this is dependent on their niche and customer demand. “The Europeans are quite progressive on stuff. So just because you’re waiting for something to happen here, doesn’t mean that you can’t build it in Europe,” Chris said. “It doesn’t matter which way it comes around. It’s not always that the UK is first with things. Sometimes customers in the UK can be quite conservative. And sometimes you’ll find that even Americans or Europeans will run off with an idea quicker than the British will.”
Understanding your customers and how they shop is very important, Chris said. By understanding your target audience, you can tailor your marketing strategies to suit your customers and expand your brand further. Utilising social media, TV and press coverage can help build your brand across various platforms and get your business some much-needed exposure both locally and internationally.
“Get that understanding about whether people want to buy it,” Chris said. “And if they do want to buy it, where are they going to buy it from? So, you can get quite a high impact with relatively low investment. Digital influencers are such a great way to build brands. You can kind of do the big stuff, and you might have seen some of our adverts on the train stations recently... If you just give stuff to people, sometimes they will write about it... You can do it like a trial and error thing. Once you start to build momentum in your business, you try different sort of advertising and you’ll see what works and doesn’t work.”