More than three decades of exporting have taught Theo Wiering an important rule: A strong Canadian dollar means weak sales in markets outside the country.
"I've always said for years that as soon as the dollar goes past 85 cents [U.S.], we're toast," says Mr. Wiering, founder and owner of Canada's Log People Inc., a log house builder in 100 Mile House, B.C., that packages and ships its homes as kits to customers in Canada, the United States, Japan and Europe. "Our costs – especially our fuel costs – are higher compared to similar businesses in the U.S., and it becomes very hard to compete."
When the Canadian dollar slipped below 80 cents this year, Mr. Wiering reacted quickly, booking himself into two trade shows in the United States. He also took out full-page ads in Log Home Living, a Boulder, Colo.-based magazine for fans of wood homes.
His marketing efforts seem to be working so far.
"The phones have started to ring," Mr. Wiering says. "And I'm finding it easier this time to get attention in the U.S. because there's less competition – the financial crisis wiped out a lot of log home companies."
As the loonie continues to stay under the 80-cent mark – it rose to 77 cents after Justin Trudeau and the Liberals swept into power this week – many entrepreneurs such as Mr. Wiering are boosting their efforts to sell in foreign markets.
"Now is the right time to explore export markets," says Igor Chigrin, an import-export consultant and co-founder of Win Global Partners in Toronto. "With the currency exchange rate as it is, Canadians have a price advantage."
Geoff Whitlock, president and founder of Surround Integrated, a Toronto-based digital marketing agency, says he's seeing a greater interest in his company's services among prospective customers outside Canada.
"The quality of Canadian work is a big selling point," he says. "And if you're in the U.S., you'll get that level of quality at about 25 per cent less than if you bought from an American company."
But while many opportunities exist outside Canada's borders, businesses face plenty of competition. Small to mid-sized businesses with no brand presence beyond their local markets can find it hard to close an export deal.
So, which strategies can help them find a quick foothold in their target markets?
There are no get-in-quick strategies for Canadians looking to export today, says Mr. Igrin, noting that brand awareness and business relationships take time to build, whether the target market is domestic or foreign. However, Canadians stand a better chance of being heard above the competition if they base their export marketing strategies on their currency-driven price advantage, he says.
"Translate this into savings for your prospective export customers," he says. "Don't be shy to tell them they should buy from you because there's an upfront savings of up to 30 per cent due to the Canadian exchange rate."
Companies that want to jump onto the exporting bandwagon need to have a long-term plan, says Barbara Ende, president of Sycamore Marketing Group Inc. in Victoria.
Understanding your target consumer is key, she says. "How and where do you have a major potential base? What is the existing competition and how are they infiltrating that market? What does your company provide that might stand out from the current mix? Does your team have the skills and know-how to manage export issues and, if not, do you want to work via a local agent?"
Finding an agent or representative can be challenging for companies in certain industries. Carol Van Wyck, founder of New York-based RightReps, which matches fashion companies with sales representatives in the United States, says agents in the apparel industry are often inundated with requests for representation.
"Before you send them your samples, find out what they sell and who their customer base is," she says. "Ideally, you should be targeting reps that are already selling lines that are complementary to yours, and that have similar price points, fit, size range and target consumer. Otherwise, sales won't happen."
Regardless of the industry they're in, Canadian companies that want to export should also find out when their target customers usually buy or shop around for a potential new supplier, says Ms. Van Wyck. In fashion, for instance, many designers and manufacturers take part in market weeks where they can display their products in showrooms.
"Consider doing shows where your rep is able to prebook buyer appointments," she says.
While the soft loonie may be providing the push to export today, companies need to ensure their products, and the marketing strategy behind them, will appeal to their market regardless of whether the dollar is up or down, Ms. Ende says.
"Any well balanced plan must include recommendations for a long-term strategy, including currency swings that might bring the exporters' prices higher again," she says.