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How Columbia used technology to reinvigorate its brands

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Columbia Sportswear Company has been in existence since 1938, but by 2008, execs at the company were afraid that growth had stagnated. Worse, there was fear that Columbia wasn't a brand that tapped into young consumers. Can a brand be “middle-aged”?

Innovation and technology were the keys to expanding market share and increasing sales, according to Columbia's Mick McCormick, who delivered his “Gear up for Growth: Innovation in the Outdoor Industry” keynote this morning at the 2011 Annual Summit. In an unusual move, the company hired a new team that would function entirely like a start-up and was segmented away from the corporate structure. The team took a hard look at the company's four brands and made changes that emphasized technology.

Here's a snapshot:

  • Mountain Hard Wear previously was known as a great mountaineering brand, but Columbia redesigned it as a brand for athletes by focusing on innovative lower-weight mountaineering gear.
  • Montrail's focus was all over the map in 2008, so Columbia reinvented it as an all-around running brand and emphasized how its running products differed in terms of technical results. Montrail told the story of its new focus via its website, which offered a sliding bar that customers could use to showcase different types of running products based on their interests.
  • Sorel used to be a men's winter footwear brand with a limited scope. The brand reboot (pun intended) broadened the opportunity by focusing on young, fashion-forward women. These customers are greatly influenced by fashion blogs, brand sites and high-end retailers. So Sorel introduced custom videos targeting this customer and worked with her favorite retailers, such as Neiman Marcus and Barneys, to get Sorel boots in their stores.
  • Consumers viewed Columbia's namesake brand as a value brand, which is a perception the brand has changed by embracing technology in its products as well as via digital means. In less than ten years, Columbia's number of patents grew from one to 157, allowing the brand to tout its high-tech products, such as its Omni-Heat line. Custom video, strategic online advertising and retail partnerships, and QR codes all play a role in telling the brand's story to consumers.

The digital experience is much more than e-commerce, said McCormick. Customers want customized video and Web content to learn about your brand's story. So get away from the idea that your business is all about transactions. The best way to influence customers is to be present throughout their shopping experiences online and in stores with more information – whether it's via a QR code or a sleek online video.