Columbia

Columbia the company has been around since the late 1930s, evolving from a small family-owned hat distributor to become one of the world’s largest outerwear brands, and the leading seller of ski-wear in the US. In 2008, the company reported net sales of $1.32bn, and is available in over 100 countries. But in the UK, the brand has struggled in the past – Dan explained to SGB how that’s going to change in the future, and why.

SGB: From your point of view, where are you in the British market?

DT: To be very direct, we’re very small in the UK; we’re under-represented. There are many reasons for that. There have been past distribution decisions that may have damaged the integrity of the brand, but we’re now very much clear of those and focussing on our specialist distribution in the market. In the sense of long-term potential, there is no reason we can’t be as big or bigger than the big players in the market, like The North Face or Berghaus.

How are we going to do that? First, we make sure we have products that are relevant to the market. So we have two product teams based in our Geneva office, who are currently focussing on the German and UK markets, to ensure we have the right products for those markets.

SGB: Explain the brand to us… What’s the brand ethos, has it evolved in recent times?

DT: We have to make sure we have product that’s right for the end consumer, for whatever they need. Historically, I think we might have lost sight of that a little bit.

But now we’re back on track, with some great technologies coming through.

One of our great strengths is that we don’t see ourselves as, and we’re certainly not, an elitist, a top-of-the-mountain brand.

We’re an inclusive brand. Our ethos is ‘taking the outdoors back for everybody’.

There’s a lot of marketing BS out there that makes the outdoors seem very extreme and quite… scary, I think, for consumers, and many people don’t see themselves as that. We’re about people following and enjoying their own passions in the outdoors, whether that’s walking the dog or getting out with the family at the weekend. We offer a broad range of products and democratic technologies that enable people to do that; so our position is about being inclusive rather than exclusive; it’s more about attitude rather than altitude.

It’s a long road, there’s a long way to go but we’re building good relationships with specialist retailers in the UK and re-building the credibility of the brand. We’re seeing some success with it at the moment, so I’m very confident that in Spring 2010, we’ll see some good growth in a marketplace that will probably stay flat or see a little growth at best next year. We think we’ll be taking market share from some other brands.

There’s a lot of good things happening with us right now.

SGB: What like?

DT: We’ve just opened our flagship store in the UK (in High Street Kensington, London); one of our biggest issues in the UK has always been brand awareness. We’ve been known more as a ski brand than an outdoor brand, so it’s about getting the message out that we are a serious outdoor brand, and the store allows us to communicate what we’re all about very effectively.

Something that’s having a lot of positive effects on our brand awareness is the sponsorship of Team Columbia, a pro cycling team. They’re the most successful professional cycling team across all levels of the sport. Mark Cavendish got us massive coverage last year during the Tour de France, for example, and this year he won more stages too. The great thing about sponsoring a cycling team is that while we don’t make specific cycling products, two out of every three cyclists consider themselves to be outdoor enthusiasts, so it’s a good crossover.

SGB: What’s exciting for you for Spring 2010 then?

DT: Spring 2010 is a season where people will see products that maybe they won’t be expecting from us. We’ve got some really innovative products coming to the market. In fact two of those products recently won innovation and design prizes at Friedrichshafen this past summer – the Ravenous trail running shoe and the Mobex backpack, a trail running/mountain biking backpack. Not things Columbia have maybe been known for before, but a couple of the many positive things around the brand at the moment.

There’s a lot going on. I’ve seen more change in the last two years with Columbia than the preceding six or seven years I’ve been with the company.

SGB: If you can grow a brand now, you can grow it any time…

DT: We’re growing from a small base, but nevertheless, we will grow. We’re now dealing with all the right accounts in the UK, specialist outdoor accounts that can understand and sell the brand and our products. That will enable us to build the foundation of the brand in the UK.

SGB: What are the key products for SS2010?

DT: The two pieces I mentioned earlier – the Ravenous trail running shoe is awesome. The US side of the company is working really hard on footwear; not that we haven’t had great footwear in the past, but now they’re working very hard on innovation, so what we’ve got is a trail running shoe which actually moulds to the shape of the foot. We’re using technology that we originally intended only to use in the midsole, which is injection-molded EVA as opposed to a dye-cut EVA. From a midsole point of view, that makes it lighter by between 20 and 30 per cent depending on the end use, it’s naturally anti-bacterial and -microbial, and gives very consistent cushioning throughout the length of the sole… We discovered you can use it in the shoe itself as well as the midsole, which means there’s like a 360-degree wrap from the heel round to the arch, where the laces join the shoe up, which means it moulds and adapts to the shape of the foot. Where a lot of trail running shoes have a hard material in the heel cup, to give a tight fit, we have the molding material around the foot, and a TPU heel cup to really clasp the heel. The end result is a very performance-oriented shoe.

Then there’s the Mobex, which stands for mobility and flexibility. It’s an external frame bag. It looks a little like a tent, with the poles on the outside; it’s a firm structure on the outside, and has a clam-shell opening so it’s really easy to get in to all areas of the bag. There are plenty of external pockets, there’s gear loops, an internal hydration system which can take up to 3 litres, and it also has advanced water and stain repellency with Omni-Shield technology. It’s shaped to fit the torso well, and there are absolutely loads of technical features which mean it’s usable for a really wide range of people.

With those two products, they’re going to help change the perception of the brand. They’re well-engineered, well thought-out products.

SGB: How are you supporting retailers?

DT: We’re launching an e-learning web site for SS2010, where staff can go online in their free time (or while in-store) where they can learn about the brand and products, and do some short tests. If they complete that, there’s the chance to win product at the end. Learning this way means if they miss seeing the rep, or are very busy or whatever, they can do it in their own time or get a refresher whenever they need it.

We’ve also just launched a B2B portal, www.columbiabrands.com, where retailers can go online, check order status, check inventory of product, and much more. This autumn we added order entry to that so retailers can go online and actually place orders with us, so if they can’t get through to their rep or customer services, or if they need to place their orders in the evening, they can do that and it will go out the next day.

We’re also starting, for
winter 2009, a ‘never out of stock’ range. That means we’ll hold stock for a minimum of 12 months, and it’s staple products like fleeces, rainwear… Things retailers know they’re going to sell, but it means retailers don’t have to place a big forward order, and they have the confidence that they can call on us as they need it.

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