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Ansis Egle: World Expo Is Not a Shop

Ansis Egle, a seasoned marketing professional and if we may say so ourselves – the king of Expo, was the brains and muscles behind Latvian pavilions in Shanghai (2010), Astana (2017) and most recently Dubai (2020). Consequently, he is one of the best experts on how to promote your company or country at the World’s biggest trade show. Ansis shares his thoughts on the do’s and don’ts of Expo, creating buzz, highlighting your product and even on the ongoing battle between ad agencies and startups.

What’s the secret behind successfully promoting your brand at Expo?

The secret lies in thorough preparation. Preparation in terms of diving into the process early on: building a relationship with all relevant parties. This will result in huge economic gains. Countries like Sweden have signed incredible deals this way. Deals they haven’t seen for ten years. And there are many more examples. Of course it’s also about having a great product, but that’s secondary.

How would you explain the economic benefit of Expo to somebody who’s a bit doubtful about it? Most countries invest public money – the question of practicality is one everybody’s mind, is it worth the investment?

All countries are publicly funded apart from the US. Denmark decided not to participate this year, but their Chamber of Commerce reconsidered eventually and created their own pavilion.

I already mentioned the need for proper preparation and relationship building, which of course requires resources. But I remember being at Shanghai or Hannover and studying the pavilions. Research on the Dutch pavilion revealed that they had invested something along the lines of 35 million euros and the return was approximately 300 million, an ROI of nearly 800%! If you are part of the discussion, manage to showcase your know-how and problem solving skills in a clear and thorough fashion – you too can do it. Another example are the Swedes who sold plenty of Volvo passenger buses to the UAE. These buses haven’t been sold in ten years. The amount of investment is tiny compared to the benefits.

Sceptics are probably just thinking in a linear way. You can’t just bring in your product and expect it to sell. This is not a market or a shop. You will probably sell something, but nowhere near the amounts you potentially could with proper preparation. North Korea and Turkmenistan have shop-style approach, just putting some things on the shelves and expecting people to buy it.

What about promoting or raising awareness for a country as a whole? Many people are running around with their Expo passports and collecting stamps, but not really engaging with the idea or concept of any particular country.

Again, long-term preparation and strategic planning. Laying the groundwork prior to the event itself. For instance Latvia and Estonia have an embassy in the UAE. World Expo is considered as country branding and economic cooperation exercise. It should be a part of the country branding initiative, which we in Latvia are struggling with. The latest approach ended up with a scandal about spending a lot of money with a questionable result. It’s difficult for smaller countries like the Baltics and Expo is a great place to get people talking. Countries like Sweden, Switzerland and the US are already well-branded, they don’t need the extra push as we do. That’s also the reason why the US pavilion is privately funded – the US as a country is already well known.

Regarding the stamp gatherers, I remember how in Shanghai, you could buy fake passports with forged stamps. It’s funny how these things pick up so quickly. Stamp gatherers are not there for the business, they just want to see the world.

If a company wants to benefit commercially from being a partner at Expo, what are the necessary steps?

In the early stages, one should understand their product and positioning. If we take Arab countries for example then they have the means to buy absolutely any imaginable product. They also have a lot of trade shows across many industries, which is a good introductory point for companies planning to join Expo.

Build relationships with the organizers, they can help with tweaking your image. As for the product, you need to show the advantages of your product, how it solves problems. Explain, demonstrate, convince. For smaller countries it’s also about showing parity with the bigger players. Proving that we’re equally good.

Back in Shanghai, we had enormous success with Aerodium’s wind tunnel. People were lining up for four hours(!) to have a chance to fly. We created huge buzz both for the company and Latvia as a country. We, Latvians were regarded as the flying people. It was all over the news and social.

Aerodium at Shanghai Expo 2010

On the other hand, Sweden had dedicated their pavilion to conference rooms, which were packed at all times with Swedish and Chinese entrepreneurs. If we relied on a great product and entertainment value, Sweden was banking on a program. Estonia has a similar approach in Dubai this year: weekly programs for different industries. And Estonia was there already before Expo, creating networks and relationships with African countries in order to offer ID solutions etc. And they have succeeded.

What was the result for Aerodium? Did they attract new business?

This marked their entry to Hollywood and beyond. Jackie Chan actually visited us in Shanghai and later came to Latvia to shoot a movie. Recently they worked with Tom Cruise on the Mission Impossible picture. Later came Disney and the rest is history.

Some companies argue that although the initial buzz is nice, it’s hard to convert it to actual sales. What are your thoughts on this?

I think Aerodium’s case is a clear answer to all the doubters. You need to have buzz! Once Aerodium had made Latvia famous in China, we saw the chance to promote other Latvian products. This could have never happened without the attention.

Today, with so many amazing products out there, you need to work for this attention. It requires grit and perseverance. This is where marketing comes to play.

Jackie Chan shooting in Latvia

Talking about business-to-business, the sales cycle is very long and products often very expensive. Any recommendations how to build trust and make the process smoother?

If we take Aerodium then it sounds exciting on paper, but to actually try it is a real gamechanger. That’s what I would recommend – let them try the product. The same goes for reporters and media.

On a different note, you have worked with startups and I recently investigated the relationship between traditional agencies and startups. There seems to be rather little cooperation, because the traditional process is apparently too slow for startups. Bolt and Printful have huge in-house marketing teams. Should the traditional agency model be restructured to meet their needs?

I think it’s an exaggeration. In Latvia, startups are really in need of agencies to push their product on foreign markets. I’ve personally consulted some of them. Another thing of course is the agency model. The top-down model is probably outdated. I’ve tested the horizontal model and it works exceptionally well in terms of agility.

And Printful still outsources branding and design, so that’s that.

Finally, any good book or podcast recommendations?

It’s hard to recommend something for B2B, but I do follow overall trends and honestly I’m a huge Adweek addict. It covers everything from trends to campaigns and I find it very exciting.


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