The first stage in the preparation of the marketing plan consists of finding out as much as possible about the market, product, distribution and consumers. Limitations at this stage are immediately apparent: it will not be possible to gather all the information as that would be too costly and time-consuming. Moreover, some of the facts and figures will be more important and pertinent than others. At this stage, therefore, complete coverage is less important than the ability to look for and find those elements that are decisive for the subsequent stages of preparing the plan.
Another aspect of fact finding is its quantitative nature. There is always the danger that the information obtained may be taken at its face value. Worse still, opinions may be taken as facts. To avoid the obvious risks of basing a plan on wrong data and unfounded opinions, there should be a conscious effort at this stage to ensure reliability through verification, cross-checking and in general, a healthy skepticism. A check-list for fact-finding would include these points:
1. Product: Characteristics and benefits; quality in relation to competition, prices and price relationships; packaging and package design; alternatives and substitutes; new technical developments.
2. Total Market: Size of the total market; market trends; seasonal variations and regional differences; shares held by the different brands and manufacturers and significant changes in these.
3. Distribution and Distribution Channels: Types of retail outlets selling the product and their relative importance; turnover rates and stock levels in different types of outlets; frequency of “out of stock” situations; importance of wholesalers, brokers, buying associations, etc.; strength of own and competing sales organizations; transport costs (abroad and inland).
4. Consumers: Who the consumers are (age, sex, income, group, urban/rural, etc.) When, how frequently and where they buy? How they use the product? Why they buy it and what they think of its quality and benefits? Familiarity of the brand name; recalls of its advertising.
5. Competitors: Who they are; their products; their areas of strength (price, quality, distribution, advertising); new products introduced lately and their success.
6. Import Rules and Regulations: Customs duties and taxes; quotas and licenses; product standard; packaging requirements; trade marks and labeling.
The statement of facts is, in many ways, the most important single part of the plan, since everything else depends upon the correct understanding of the relevant marketing factors.
A marketing plan may contain general market information in addition to the specific product-related information. This information is not directly relevant to any commodity or product, but is of back ground interest to anyone developing a sales campaign in a given market. It is usually available from secondary sources. Essentially, two aspects need to be covered at this stage if a decision has been made to include such information:
Economic Factors: These relate principally to the ability of the market to buy the product or products. Factors to be considered are the general economic situation, gross national product, growth rate of industrial and agricultural output, population and population increases, foreign exchange reserves, balance of payments, labor supply, etc.
Specific Market Characteristics: These concern the willingness of the market to buy the product, as distinct from its ability to do so. The factors involved are mostly in the consumer sector, such as environment, age, family size, ethnic origin, religion, occupation, education, sex, etc. All these factors are influential, and sometimes decisive, in determining the tastes, preferences, dietary habits and similar characteristics of the market the exporter is interested in.