Finding Business Information on US Corporations - A Guide for non-US Companies Targeting the US Market

Article on US marketing by Chuck Klein

Non-American Companies Have Special Needs

Due to its size, wealth and acceptance of foreign made products, the US market is an ideal target for many non-American companies seeking export sales opportunities. One of the first steps in breaking into this lucrative business arena is to evaluate market potential by closely looking at your US competitors, their products, their strengths and weaknesses and a wide range of other factors.
Although US companies interested in their home market also have marketing intelligence needs, non-US companies pursuing American sales penetration face special obstacles, concerns and challenges including:


LOCATION - Being based outside the US, these companies are based very far from the target market. This distance creates major obstacles in truly understanding the business environment and operations of their competitors.

LANGUAGE - With a few exceptions, most exporters to the USA are from countries where English is not their mother tongue. This creates obstacles and barriers in their intelligence gathering efforts.

CULTURAL DIFFERENCES - While American culture is widespread around the world from television, movies, the Internet and other factors, there are still many major cultural barriers between non-Americans and Americans

FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN - Non-American managers are often apprehensive about pursuing marketing opportunities in the US, taking the attitude " we are not yet ready for this major market".
Thus, non-American managers interested in obtaining business intelligence need to recognize the real as well as perceived obstacles which must be overcome in their search for information on US companies and markets.


Who is Seeking US Business Intelligence

A wide range of individuals based outside of the USA look for US business intelligence information regularly. They include:


Exporters to the USA

Potential exporters

High Tech Entrepreneurs

Venture Capital Fund Managers

Investment Bankers

Government Trade Officials

Trade Development Organizations

Chamber of Commerce Employees

Importers of US Products


We can conclude that there are truly significant populations of individuals outside the US who regularly seek US business information. Yet, from our experience with many non-US companies and organizations, many if not most, barely scratch the surface in obtaining the outstanding business intelligence data that is available.

While almost all of these intelligence users would love to get more detailed and complete information on their US targets, they often lack the skills and experience to understand their intelligence gathering options, usually depending exclusively on the Internet and possibly some on-line data base searches. Unlike their fellow information users who are based in the US and have access to all sorts of human/networking sources, these non-Americans give up easily making statements like: "if it is not on the Net then it must not exist" or "they are a privately held company so you can't find anything anyway".

While not everything is readily available with a few clicks of the mouse, there is far more information available than many non-American researchers believe. As long as the company you are targeting is in business - and has employees, former employees, customers, suppliers and competitors - it is very difficult for them to hermetically seal themselves from the outside world. Remember that whenever sales are being made and business is being transacted, information is being transferred and can ultimately be leaked.

In the following paragraphs, we will discuss the types of US business information that managers typically need and then review possible information sources and data gathering methods.

 

What Types of Information Are They Seeking

As we frequently conduct competitive intelligence seminars with non-American business people interested in the United States market, we often ask participants what types of information they are seeking. Their collective "wish list" usually includes the following:


A list and profile on all companies (US and non-US) operating in the field of interest in the USA.

Obtain copies of their promotional and technical collateral material

Who are the leaders?

Competitor sales - in total and particular product lines or market channels

Competitor strengths and weaknesses as perceived by themselves and by the market

Pricing and pricing structures. When are discounts given? How extensive are the discounts?

Competitor positioning in the market

Their current marketing strategy

Plans for new products, new markets or new marketing methods

A list of the distributors and reps working with the key competitors

A list of their offices and warehouses

Personal and professional background on key managers

Key channels of distribution

Promotional methods they use and information on how much they invest in promotion

A list of trade shows where they exhibit and publications where they advertise

Perception of non-American companies in the target market

While this list may not be a 100% match for all information users, it covers many of the key issues being researched on US targets by exporters or other non-Americans considering the US market. So now the question is - where can you find answers?


Secondary vs. Primary Information Sources

The distinction between secondary sources (existing published) and primary sources (interviews and feedback from people in the market) is well known. Our experience has shown time and time again that a major reason for failure in obtaining needed US market intelligence information is that the search begins and ends with secondary sources, primarily with the Internet.

Generally, especially for non-Americans, secondary sources are faster, less expensive and easier to access. However, depending only on secondary sources limits your ability to get the information you truly need to make intelligent business decisions.. In essence, it is a self imposed research limitation, kind of like running a race on one leg.



Examples of Secondary Sources

There is a wealth of US business information available from secondary sources. Some of them include the following:


Trade Magazines


Trade Association Publications


SEC (public company) Reports


On-Line Data Bases


Off-the-Shelf Research Reports


Industry Trade Directories


Stock Market Analyst Reports


Federal Government Records


State and Local Government Records


General Company Directories


Competitor Brochures


Press Kits


Company Newsletters


Court Records


Trade Exhibition Directories


Internet Sources - including competitor web sites, industry directories, reports, press releases, newsgroups and other sources



Primary Sources - That's Where the Action Is

Do to an overall open attitude toward business information in the United States, intelligence experts, alongside with marketing managers are often very successful in conducting interviews that turn up outstanding information. Once again, the non-Americans are at a severe disadvantage as it is far more difficult conducting US interviews from Paris or Hong Kong as compared to doing them from Chicago and Phoenix. .

Primary sources of competitive intelligence information are endless but some of the better ones include the following:


The target company including: Top management, marketing managers, sales managers, sales people, R&D people, customer service staff, public relations manager, investment relations manager, information center staff, secretaries and clerks


Distributors in your industry


Independent Reps in your industry


End users of similar products


Independent consultants with expertise in the field of interest


University professors


Trade association executives


Trade magazine editors and writers - especially freelance writers


Former employees of target companies


Former employees at companies that compete with the target


Competitors of your target


Labor Union Employees


Government employees


Industry trade show employees


Staff at companies who are suppliers to the target


Business journalists based near the target company who cover their activities



Accessing secondary sources followed by interviews with primary sources is a powerful combination. Used successfully, it is an excellent tool in obtaining intelligence data needed by non-Americans in the US market.


Public VS. Privately Held Companies

Your ability to obtain business information will be impacted by whether the company is "public" - traded on a stock exchange, or "privately held". Public companies in the US must meet strict reporting requirements, submitting critical data such as 10K reports to the US Government's Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Once reports are submitted, they become a matter of public record and can be accessed by anyone via the Internet. Furthermore, once a company is public, it is tracked by analysts as well as an array of Internet company research sites, leading to substantial information being disclosed.

Privately held companies have no such requirements. They have no obligation to publish their financial statements nor report on their operations.

Based on the above, one may think that everything you need on public companies is available and that nothing or very little can be found on privately held firms. However, such a conclusion is often incorrect.

While public companies need to disclose substantial information, quite often they quite successfully hide the type of data you are seeking. For example, we recently were researching a small division of a Fortune 500 company. Reviewing their 10K reports and other public documents, the division we were targeting was not even mentioned. Thus obtaining information on their sales, profitability, products and marketing strategies was impossible even though they are publicly held. We ultimately interviewed several former employees of competing companies who were able to provide substantial information. The secondary research failed - the primary research succeeded.

While researching privately held US companies can be challenging, information can be found from both secondary and primary sources. As an example, a privately held US company we researched was receiving funding from the government in the state where they are located - many US states provide incentives to encourage companies to move into their state. Their funding application was matter of public record and included many details on their operations not available elsewhere. Subsequent primary interviews with industry insiders such as a business journalist at a local newspaper, independent sales reps and the company itself helped expand our information base.

Putting together a profile on a US company is like a puzzle. You gather many pieces of information from a variety of sources. After a while, a clear picture begins to emerge.


Using Industry Insiders

One of the keys in using primary sources is utilizing industry "insiders". Non-Americans seeking marketing intelligence in the US often lack the business network available to them in their home country. Due to its large size and sophisticated business environment, in most industries it is relatively easy to find industry insiders willing to help. More importantly, there are many consultants and others with extensive contacts in your industry who are willing and interested in seeking the information you need although payment of a fee is often required. Finding industry experts in the US is easier than in any other country in the world.

Is All This Legal?

Non-American researchers focused on US companies should be cautious to operate within legal and ethical boundaries. In reality, so much information is available through legal means that taking illegal actions does not make sense. Managers collecting information in the USA should be aware of two laws that may impact their efforts. The first is the Economic Espionage Act, passed in 1996, which defines many areas of economic espionage as a criminal offense. If convicted, offenders can be sentenced to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $500,000 for an individual and $5,000,000 for a company can be given. While an in-depth review of the law is beyond the scope of this article, it relates to actions such as illegally securing marketing plans, customer lists, product information and other sensitive data. On the other side, the United States "Freedom of Information Act", originally passed in 1966, with amendments in 1974 and 1996, requires the Federal Government to allow access to vast quantities of information, some of which may be useful in your research. Access is not limited to US citizens. The 1996 amendments are especially interesting as they require the Government to provide more and more information electronically, such as on the Internet, CD's or other digital formats. Ironically, this law is an absolute blessing to those people involved in US competitive intelligence who are based outside the USA. In the past,. accessing certain types of US government records required someone to physically go to the appropriate office in Washington or elsewhere. Now, more and more information is available on-line, aiding "foreigners" in their efforts to compete against US corporations.


Conclusion

If you are one of the many non-American managers, consultants or government officials seeking US competitive intelligence, there are many tools available to aid in your efforts. While more and more secondary information sources are becoming available all the time, much of the critical information can only be found through interviews with industry insiders based in the USA. Sound business decisions should be based on good business intelligence. Thus non-American researchers are encouraged to consider going beyond the Internet when the information they need is not found by clicking their mouse. Remember that gathering marketing intelligence data is like making soup: It takes time to cook, It needs many ingredients, and It can be done at home or ordered from a professional!

About the Author:

Chuck Klein is managing partner of Amcon Marketing Strategy International, which specializes in helping non-US companies profit in the USA. Amcon provides tangible marketing and human resource services in the US including market studies, competitive intelligence, strategic partner searches, rep searches and executive recruitment serving clients worldwide.

Klein is considered an expert on US marketing for non-US manufacturers and international trade. He has published over 100 articles and presented numerous seminars and lectures on marketing skills and strategy for non-US manufacturers interested in the American market. His book Marketing to America: How non-US Companies can Profit by Selling in the USA was published by the Financial Times/Prentice Hall.

Amcon's web site is: www.amconmarketing.com

e-mail: info@amconmarketing.com

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