Businesses in the Highlands and Islands are being encouraged to collaborate with one another to grow their sales and explore overseas markets.
Exporting can sometimes feel a wee bit daunting. With so many overseas markets to choose from, entrepreneurs could be forgiven for not knowing where to start. That’s why Scotland’s enterprise agencies – which include Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), Scottish Enterprise and Scottish Development International (SDI) – are helping businesses to work together when dipping their toes into international waters. This can help to minimise the risks associated with targeting new markets and maximise the benefits, allowing small firms to pool their resources and face challenges together.
And whisky companies are no exception when it comes to reaping the benefits of collaboration. Tomatin Distillery has enjoyed a long history of overseas success, having become the first fully Japanese-owned whisky producer in Scotland back in 1986, and now the company is helping other firms to export too.
“We began working with Dean’s of Huntly in 2012 to develop a whisky cake,” explains Jennifer Masson, marketing manager at Tomatin. “We realised that we could both benefit – we were strong on exports, which was an aspiration for Dean’s, while Dean’s was very strong in the UK, which was an aspiration for us.
“We both have recognisable brands and so by bringing them together each of us can reach a new set of customers. The cake has been on sale within Dean’s gifting range for the past two years and last year Dean’s made production changes to the recipe to extend the shelf life from one to two years – that gives us the opportunity to promote the cake in new ways, perhaps as part of a gift pack with our whisky.
“HIE and SDI have been a great support to us with regards to our export activities. They provide us with invaluable market intelligence and assist us in expanding our distribution network through introductions to potential distribution partners and involvement in industry fairs.”
Tomatin has clearly been bitten by the collaboration bug. As well as working with Dean’s, the company also collaborates with several local businesses including Story Chocolates, which is based in the Victorian Market in Inverness, and – thanks to HIE – it is currently working with a local candlemaker to develop candles that complement the aromas of its whiskies.
Another of its collaborations has taken whisky into a whole new arena. “Eteaket, the Scottish leaf tea company, approached us last year to develop a barrel-aged whisky tea,” says Masson. “At first, our distillery manager thought it couldn’t be done, but seeing the potential exposure that both brands could benefit from, I was determined this would succeed, so we carried out a few experiments and worked with our cooper to develop a cask that would enable Eteaket to produce the tea on a larger scale. We succeeded and Eteaket now produces the tea and we supply the barrels, along with a regular supply of whisky to keep the barrels’ aromas strong.”
It’s not just the whisky sector that’s benefiting from collaborations either. Mey Selections – the food and drink brand of the North Highland Initiative (NHI), which was launched in 2005 by Prince Charles, the Duke of Rothesay, to grow the economy – has been working with Loch Fyne Oysters to export its range of goods.
“Loch Fyne has an exemplary track record in exporting premium Scottish seafood and that makes it an ideal partner for Mey Selections where the target market is ex-pat communities or where there’s an affinity with the royal family,” says David Whiteford, chair of the NHI. “We’re regularly selling consignments of beef, smoked salmon and other products into markets including Singapore and Hong Kong, and the opportunities are significant in places such as the United States, whilst not forgetting Europe as well.
“In terms of exports, SDI has been great at helping ourselves and Loch Fyne get into the high-end markets where we want to be. It has people on the ground in the right places around the world, while HIE has been supporting the businesses that create products for the Mey Selections brand.”
A broad range of companies are involved in making products under the brand, from Ashers’ whisky cake, to Maclean’s biscuits and oatcakes, and Struan’s honey and marmalade through to Dunnet Bay Distillery’s traditional Scottish gin, Highland Fine Cheeses and Johnstons of Elgin’s tweed and tartan.
NHI through its trading company, North Highland Products, also markets £17m-worth of livestock at farm gate value per year through processors ABP and Dunbia into Sainsbury’s where they can be found under the “North Highland” brand at “serve-over” counters.
Whiteford is also quick to point out the link between the North Coast 500 – the now world-renowned touring route – and the amazing food and drink that’s produced there. “Mey Selections is effectively the ‘Food of the Five Hundred’,” he adds.
Susan Beattie, head of food and drink and textiles at SDI, highlights the many benefits that businesses can reap from collaboration, including increased sales, innovation, brand exposure, cross promotion, additional market opportunities and new product development. “There are many small businesses in the food and drink sector, particularly in rural areas, that have strong product offers but they don’t necessarily have the resources to go out and explore the opportunities in export markets,” she says.
“If they can work with others and share resources then it can make exporting possible for smaller businesses, or it can make it easier or faster for bigger companies that want to work together with others in more challenging markets. There’s often a value in presenting a collective Scottish offer.”
Beattie gives the example of the Made in Scotland collaboration, which brings together ten companies to offer a range of products to overseas customers. “Buyers like it because they get a choice of products across different categories without that choice being overwhelming, so it makes it easier for them to pick a basket of products from Scotland and have the convenience of just one invoice,” she explains.
Collaborations are also taking place in other sectors, including those organised by the Dairy Growth Board, Scottish Bakers and the Craft Beer Clan of Scotland, which also handles craft spirits. “Companies can access a lot of support through SDI, both from our teams here in Scotland, which can help with preparing to export, and our specialists who are based in our eight top prospect overseas markets,” Beattie says.
Martin Johnson, regional head of sectors, inward investment and international trade at HIE, adds: “Exporting is increasingly important to the growth of most businesses, but for many it can be tricky finding their way through the complexities of reaching overseas markets. With this in mind, we offer a wide range of support including information, advice and funding for businesses of all sizes and sectors looking to dip their toes into international markets.
“Through this support businesses can find out about opportunities in countries that might be of interest to them and how to go about pursuing these opportunities.”
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