Adapting business models for emerging markets

Increasingly, companies are looking for their future growth in emerging markets. Up to now, the recommendation has been that the only way companies can prosper in these markets is to relentlessly cut costs and accept profit margins close to zero.

However, companies that are successfully cracking these markets realize that opportunities in these regions don’t require them to forgo profits, but they can’t simply transplant their existing business models and products into a new marketplace. This requires a new operational reality to make it work.

The key realization should be that innovations such as transferring money through cell phones, running hand-wash laundry services, and improving the distribution of traditional produce are typical of the innovation that drives a new economy. This requires a business-unusual approach that makes commerce work in emerging markets.

That may sound overly simplistic, given the difficulty Western companies have had entering emerging markets to date. But we believe they’ve struggled not because they can’t create viable offerings but because they get their business models wrong.

Importing Foreign Business Models

Many multinationals simply import their domestic models into emerging markets. Through reduced functionality and branding changes, lowering prices, perhaps selling smaller sizes, or by using lower-cost labor, materials, or other resources—these companies believe that they can take marginal profits and gain market share. Sometimes they even design and manufacture their products locally and hire local country managers. However, the fundamental financial and operating models remain unchanged, limiting these companies to selling largely in the highest income tiers, which in most emerging markets aren’t big enough to generate sufficient returns. What they do not realize is that these upper tiers are spoilt for choice in most emerging markets where there is typically a dual economy, and while they inch away at market share in these markets that typically represent at most 10% of the market, the remaining 90% does not have access to these products.

Many companies have already been lured by the promise of profits from selling low-end products and services in high volume to the very poor in emerging markets. And high-end products and services are widely available in these markets for the very few that can afford them: You can buy a Mercedes or a washing machine, or stay at a nice hotel, almost anywhere in the world. Our experience suggests a far more promising place to begin: between these two extremes, in the vast middle market. Consumers there are defined not so much by any particular income band as by a common circumstance: Their needs are being met very poorly by existing low-end solutions because they cannot afford even the cheapest of the high-end alternatives. Companies that devise new business models and offerings to better meet those consumers’ needs affordably will discover enormous opportunities for growth.

Supply Chains

To supply products in new markets requires both a supply chain and customers. When you do not have the suppliers who can provide you with the raw products, it becomes very expensive as it needs to be transported or manufactured in that market. Many organizations move the product to a new market without the supply chain being in place. This is another key reason why local innovation is a critical strategy.

Innovating for Success

Leading scholars suggest that the best strategy in these markets is to find an idea where there are people that need a service in line with your core business, prototype, and execute it. The aim is to build a new business model and make it work. If you want to link this in time to your existing product range—this is great—but innovation requires local relevance as much as it requires the bells and whistles.

Back to the Business Model

So, to move into these markets requires a lot of situational awareness and back-to-basics thinking. The very basis of any business model is to answer how you plan to make money.

Behind that question is a lineup of other questions:

  • Who’s your target customer?
  • What customer problem or challenge do you solve?
  • What value do you deliver?
  • How will you reach, acquire, and keep customers?
  • How will you define and differentiate your offering?
  • How will you generate revenue?
  • What resourcing (HR, Finance, Operations) supports this model?
  • What’s your cost structure?
  • What’s your profit margin?
  • How will your customers pay?

These fundamental business questions need to be rethought when entering new markets.

Sophisticated business models can follow later and a lot of innovation may go into making this work, but it must be back to the basics of the business model.

Understanding the Basics of Costs

For most large organizations, the idea of fixed cost recovery and variable cost is already in place due to economies of scale. For smaller operations, it is important to consider that startup thinking is required.

Expansion into a new market means that there is a growing fixed cost base and also a variable cost to each new product that is produced, which initially is very high and later becomes lower. Refining a localized business model requires a clear understanding of this and to keep on linking the price to the cost and quantity being sold.

Some definitions that may assist those unfamiliar with this include:

  • Marginal cost is defined as (Fixed Cost + Variable Costs) / Number of products
  • Marginal revenue is the additional revenue a firm gains by selling an additional unit of a good or service.
  • Fixed costs: Your business will have plenty of costs—from renting an office and buying equipment to paying salaries and buying supplies. Some of these costs—office rental or salaries, for example—don’t change often and must be paid on a regular basis. These are fixed costs or overhead.
  • Variable costs: Other costs, called variable costs, fluctuate with your sales volume. They include the materials that go into producing your product or service.

When marginal revenue is greater than the additional costs associated with producing an additional unit, known as the marginal cost, revenues will increase. Profit-maximizing firms seek to produce the quantity at which marginal revenue is equal to marginal cost.

Your sales must also cover your fixed and variable costs as well as your profit expectations, and it’s essential to know which is which. In startup situations, fixed costs increase and variable costs go up initially and later decrease as production processes become more efficient.

On the Ground, Remote Management or Partnerships

When deciding to expand, it is critical to decide if you are committing to a market. Without commitment, you are setting up to fail. Emerging markets require commitment, and a lot of initiatives fail because people seek local partners, do not commit to getting their own staff, and believe that they can manage the market the same as their domestic market. It is critical to think through the skill sets required, the people to do it, complex arrangements such as taxation, currency transfers, and supervision, and to do this while accepting that your business model will have to adapt to local conditions.


Most organizations are looking to build their international presence, and a lot of companies are betting on the fact that growth will come from the 5 billion people in emerging markets and the developing world. This market requires careful study and deliberate strategy in order to succeed. While there is money to be made, it requires an innovation mindset and not simply the transplanting of what you do at home to a new place. If you are not thinking about your international strategy yet—maybe it is time to consider it.