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Woman‑owned marketing agency goes global with the help of TCS

Promotional products can tell customers, clients and employees a lot about a company’s brand and style. Jane Mitchell feels that they should also reflect its principles. Her marketing agency, Oyster Promo Inc., focuses on unique sustainable products that are striking a cord as the company starts going global.

Jane Mitchell
Jane Mitchell, president and founder of Oyster Promo Inc.

“We believe that worldwide, purchasing with purpose is increasingly important as a brand differentiator,” says Mitchell, whose private company, with offices in Halifax and Vancouver, sells merchandise that shows that organizations care about the environment and the social good. “They tell their story and build their brand in line with their values.”

As a woman‑owned enterprise, Oyster is working to find a market among organizations that embrace diversity when they do business. Mitchell is tapping into such global opportunities with the help of the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service (TCS) and its Business Women in International Trade (BWIT) program.

“BWIT has been there for Oyster from the beginning — supporting us, being available, acting as cheerleaders, offering a resource of business skill and know‑how as well as a community of friendly faces,” she says.

With a background in marketing, communications and sustainability, working for the America’s Cup, Mitchell started Oyster just over three years ago because “I wanted to do something that had the potential to make a difference, that made people think about what they have always done, differently. And to build a business that would add value to the world.”

She notes that promotional products have sometimes been associated with “trinkets and trash,” while her items are “tangibly” different, including recycled materials, plant‑based items such as seed paper bookmarks and useful things like custom socks.

She notes that a recent international report by Accenture shows that when a company’s brand doesn’t align with a customer’s or a client’s beliefs, 47 percent will walk away from the brand and 17 percent will not come back. “Branded merchandise is a great opportunity to fill this gap. It is tangible and often has an emotional appeal,” she comments, so it makes a connection.

The company, which has three staff, is just getting started with its international sales and outreach, with about 5 percent of its sales in the global market, especially the U.S. “It’s been important for us to establish a strong base and foothold in Canada before expanding into other countries,” says Mitchell. She’s looking at expansion into the UK and Europe, which are ahead of North America from a perspective of sustainability and where she has contacts with friends and colleagues through her past marketing work, as well as possibly New Zealand and Australia.

Lynne Thomson, a trade commissioner with the BWIT program, says that Oyster’s eco‑friendly promotional items have found a niche but the sector is highly competitive. Supplier diversity programs “have provided international exposure” and Mitchell offers an important “custom‑design aspect,” Thomson says. “Jane is a master at quality control.”

BWIT has made a number of “e‑introductions” between Mitchell and potential buyers and partners, Thomson says. For example, it has connected her with a woman in Ireland who runs a similar business, with a possibility that the two could work together in the future. “It’s important to consider collaboration with a non‑Canadian company to share big bids,” Thomson says. “Such bids are often time sensitive, so creative alignments like this could be the answer.”

As a woman-owned business, Mitchell says her challenges have included “being growth‑oriented from the outset and ready to take a risk.” She’s found that it helps to “surround yourself with others who are growing or have been there,” as well as to understand “the support that is out there.”

Participating in BWIT trade missions like Go for the Greens — an annual event in Orlando that helps match women‑owned businesses with large companies that have buyer-diversity programs — allows her to “understand the landscape,” she says. “It opens your mind to new opportunities; that is priceless. You meet people who are doing different things, thinking in different ways, and you come back with new ideas that you wouldn’t have had a chance of doing if you stayed at home.”

BWIT has offered coaching in how to pitch her business, it has brought potential clients to the table, including large U.S. organizations, and it hosts networking events. “BWIT is a source of information and inspiration, they work with many different businesses and have good insights into what has been successful, and they create a community of support,” she says.

Mitchell says it’s important for women in business to “know that this is a long‑term process” and not stop after one event. “When I first went on the BWIT trade mission to Go for the Greens, I did not get any matchmaker meetings. When I went last year, I had seven meetings, and I am looking forward to going again this fall.”

She plans to develop a more robust website, including an e‑commerce platform, to continue to build the company’s brand and to double Oyster’s sales each year.

“We are excited about the opportunities for growth,” Mitchell says. “We envision Oyster as a hub of sustainable products so that no matter where you are in the world, you can order from us knowing your branded merchandise will be high quality, sustainable, and the creative design will be appealing.”

Her goal is to have each person who buys branded merchandise first request sustainable options, she says, “so that this becomes the new normal, and we begin to wonder how we ever did it any other way.”

Mitchell’s advice for other women in business? “Trust in yourself. Go in with your eyes open — not everyone and all clients have your best interests in mind — so make sure you are doing things in a way that makes sense for you. Learn about everything that is available to you and take the time to educate yourself.  Put the customer at the centre of everything. Think big and be courageous.”

And don’t forget to use the support of the trade commissioners to help your business grow internationally.

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