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‘A Fast-Track Way to Potential’: Start Your SME Export Journey in the Commonwealth


The UK is the world leader in innovation in the food and drink industry, thanks to its high-quality produce and industry-leading technology. At the Food and Drink day of the UK House Commonwealth Business Forum on 28 July 2022, delegates heard about the export journey of SME Warner’s Distillery.

Here, International Commercial Manager Mike Nield discusses how Warner’s Distillery made its first forays into international markets, the advantages of trading within the commonwealth, the support the business has received from the Depart of International Trade, and lessons other SMEs can take from his journey.

First steps to new markets

Warner’s began receiving approaches from prospective international partners soon after its launch in 2012, and I joined in 2017 to develop its export strategy.

My first step was to check that Warner’s was crystal clear on its USPs of sustainability and craftsmanship, and its ethos of “the British countryside in a bottle.”

Next, I made sure Warner was ready for the challenge of international exporting. I believe that disruptive brands can benefit from an early launch to gain first mover advantage, but others might prefer to wait until they can attract a larger importer, or have more money to invest. Whenever you choose to do it, the key is that you dedicate yourself to the journey.

And don’t get carried away with the excitement of winning an international deal at all costs: if you have red margin lines in the UK, those should stand in international business too.

Choosing your international markets

Data (such as Euromonitor reports from the Department for Trade) are crucial to understanding foreign demand for a product. However, some markets are logistically and legally easier for British companies than others.

Warner’s started exporting pre-Brexit to the EU. It made sense due to the ease of transport and paperwork, and the large numbers of people crossing between the UK and Europe, taking their knowledge of the brand with them. The next stage of our export journey started in 2019 when I began researching mainly Commonwealth markets across Asia and Australasia.

Commonwealth countries are culturally much easier to export to. Historically, we’ve been doing business with these Commonwealth countries seamlessly for 250 years, if not longer. We understand the ways of doing business with each other. There are existing transportation routes, for example.

They also tend to know and like British brands and British tastes in their market. They have a better understanding of what is premium and where that sits because they can benchmark it against similar brands. It’s a fast-track way to potential.

Throughout our Commonwealth export journey, the UK’s Depart of International Trade (DIT) has been there to support us. This year we have been recognised as DIT Expert Champions, participating in a range of DIT export-focused events including the UK House Commonwealth Business Forum, Gulfood UAE Meet the Buyer and trade delegation, and South Africa Accelerator Programme to name a few.

Finding the right local partner

An importer is a gateway to new markets, so it’s crucial that brands don’t leap into exporting until they’ve found a partner with the right skill sets, passion, and personal connection. In many countries, if the relationship is strong, the deal will naturally follow. Patience and a genuine desire to build solid personal relationships will often be the key.

I must also emphasise the importance of tailoring language, avoiding slang, jargon, and UK cultural references – no matter how excellent a prospective partner’s English is.

Once the partnership is forged, brands need to listen and learn. That means leaving your UK brain at the door. Whilst importers are always interested in sharing best practices, one of the biggest turn-offs is hearing “well that works in the UK”!

Warner’s Distillery never imposes its core UK range on a new market. Instead, we bring our gin expertise to the table, while trusting the local knowledge of its import partners. It has to be a marriage of expertise for the relationship to work.

Building on Success

Now, Warner’s Distillery exports to more than 30 countries on multiple continents. It’s taken time and tenacity to get here. When exporting, decision-making takes longer, logistics are trickier, relationships are key, and you are asking a company to bulk buy an unproven product for their market. An export journey is not going to be transformative in year one.

And the next steps for Warner’s? To keep on consolidating and expanding. A key element to export success is to make sure that you are investing the right balance of time into existing markets but also into working the pipe of new business.

The next big challenge is North America. But as with everything, we will take our time and make sure the choice is the right one for the long-term future.

Warner’s Distillery attended UK House: The Commonwealth Business Hub during the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. Inspired by Warner’s export journey? Discover more export advice by watching on-demand sessions from the UK House Food and Drink days to discover how your brand could get started!



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