Medical device companies that attempt to expand their international business into new markets often have limited success. When companies sign up to new distributors in their chosen markets, they initially find that sales ramp uprevenues increase, and the entry is viewed as a successful move. But after a while, momentum is lost in and sales begin to plateau. Over time, the client decides that the distributors are underperforming, and they decide to make significant changes. 

Companies may decide to find an alternative distributor, buy the local distributor or reacquire the distribution rights and start their own subsidiary. In each case, it’s far from an easy process. Changing distributor or moving from indirect to direct sales can be costly and troublesome in both the short and long term, and the overcorrection leads to an inefficient national sales network. 

At Ortho Consulting Group (OCG), we have worked with many clients to analyse their international distribution strategies and avoid the pattern of underperformance and overcorrection. We have found that, in most cases, the problem isn’t as simple as poorly run distributors, it’s sometimes attributed to the distributor not knowing how to grow the market. Good initial sales growth of core products is achieved, but they are unsuccessful at introducing new products to areas that are not yet established. The assumption is that the distributors don’t have the necessary skills or didn’t invest enough in business growth. At the start, distributors are often given national exclusivity to encourage investment; in addition, contracts stipulating minimum levels of marketing investment by the distributors are often negotiated. Even then, some companies still think distributors don’t invest enough. In some cases, the sales plateau is attributed to a lack of drive by distribution organisations. A common opinion is that the typical distributor is looking not for market domination but for a stable, medium-size business that is not too big to control. Distributors often have their own ideas about why the relationships don’t succeed over timeusually being a combination of a lack of support for growing the business, unrealistic expectations and that the company politics were too complicated.

We endeavour to help companies avoid this scenario by helping develop and oversee their marketing strategy from the start. In many cases, our clients come to see that it makes sense to continue working with independent local distributors and benefit from their unique expertise and knowledge of their markets. 

Building the Partnership

Market-led vs Distributor-led

Entry into a new international market should be a strategic decision based on a thorough market assessment. Our experience tells us that more often than not, that’s not happening. Initial moves into new countries can sometimes arise in response to partnership proposals from potential distributors. Companies can be inclined to go ahead because marginal costs are low, and the distributor bears most of the risk. But in fact, sometimes the most obvious, vocal and eager distributors, might not be the best ones to partner within the long term. In many cases, companies end up with the distributors that also serve their competitors, because they’re in the strongest positions, by far, within the orthopaedic/spine industry. Powerful, incumbent distributors certainly have the market contacts, but they also want to control the category and keep the companies they represent in balance. We have seen time and time again, that distributors with strong positions in the status quo are more likely to deliver a sales plateau, given their desire to maintain the market structure.  

OCG usually focus first on identifying the country that a client wants to enter, then finding a distributor. Being market-led rather than distributor-led often results in our selecting a better distributor because of a more systematic and thorough assessment of potential partners.  

Company Fit vs Market Fit 

The choice of distributors and the terms of the relationships should serve our client’s long-term goals but, once again, the most obvious distributor is not necessarily the best partner for the long term. Companies expanding internationally, usually look for partners with the best market fit, meaning those already serving major potential customers with similar product lines. We have found that the closeness of the market fit can be a hindrance as well as an advantage, because the distributors represent the market’s status quo, and the companies that we represent are often are selling a replacement or new technology and are attempting to disrupt the market. 

We look for a company fit; a partner with a culture and a strategy that we feel will suit our clients in terms of communication, the investment they’ll make, the training they’ll give their staff, and the support they’ll ask for.  

Long-Term Partners vs Temporary Market-Entry Vehicles

Unfortunately, many companies actively communicate to distributors that their intentions are only for the short term, negotiating contracts that allow them to buy back distribution rights after a few years. Additionally, under a short-term agreement, a local distributor doesn’t have much incentive to undertake long-term business development. 

We help our clients structure their relationships so that their distributors become marketing partners willing to invest in long-term market development. A common way of doing this is to give national exclusivity to a distributor, although such an agreement can become unproductive if conflicts of interest arise once an entry is established. We have seen that a more effective solution is to create an agreement with strong incentives for achievable goals, such as customer acquisition or new product sales which instils confidence and assurances for both parties. The local distributor then effectively acts as on the client’s behalf as a local marketing arm in its country to help nurture their brand.