Columbia calls 'B.S.' on Outdoors Industry

By STEPHEN REGENOLD

With strong words and pointed language aimed at the outdoors industry, big promises on new technology, and theatrical skaters twirling amid spotlights on synthetic ice at an events center in the meatpacking district of New York City, Columbia Sportswear Company of Portland, Ore., last week announced its plans to become “the most innovative company in the outdoors.” The big claim, recited onstage by a Columbia VP during a media launch party, set the tone for a night of product unveilings that included heated outerwear and gloves, base layers lined with a grid of metallic dots, a new and proprietary waterproof-breathable membrane for jackets, and a promise to “take down Gore-Tex and other dinosaurs in the industry that stopped trying a long time ago.”

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Columbia Sportswear jackets will sell for up to $1,200 next year

The spicy rhetoric and insider polemics are part of a plan by Columbia to reboot a company that’s slouched toward commoditization and complacency in recent years. And those are words from the company itself, not me. “We’re calling bullshit on old and bad technology — even if it’s our own,” said an executive at the event, which I attended last week along with a couple dozen additional media people from the United States and abroad.

What’s all the fuss about? How about a $1,200 Columbia jacket, or gloves laced with carbon-fiber filaments that seep heat? A new membrane by Columbia — a “Gore-Tex killer,” as was tossed around — will rely on a polyethylene layer to offer increased breathability to a waterproof jacket line. A new spread of base layers have a pattern of metallic dots for heat retention and sweat wicking ability. Boots will employ li-ion batteries for electric heat, and Columbia’s winter parkas will soon be charged via cables and USB ports on laptop computers before being zipped on to head outside and into the chill.

“The outdoors industry has become stale,” said a Columbia exec at the event. “We want to grow the market through innovation.” As Columbia sees it, rising athletic brands like Under Armour and Lululemon are pulling significant market share away from traditional outdoors companies. The reason, Columbia estimates, is a lack of innovation in the outdoors world. A suite of new products for 2011 and beyond, the company touts, will change that paradigm.

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Cross-section of Omni-Heat jacket

It’s worth restating: The big claim Columbia makes is that it wants to become “the most innovative company in the outdoors.” No mixing words.

It is rare for an outdoors brand to point fingers and talk blunt. But I found the conversation at the Columbia event to be honest and appropriate for a theatrical launch event that was pitched as a “coming out party” for a brand that has suffered in the street-cred category in recent years. The Columbia brand, which started up in 1938, hit the big time in the 1980s with its Bugaboo ski jackets. It rode the Bugaboo wave for years, expanding the “Buga-” branding to boots and company taglines and marketing-speak.

But Columbia drifted, rested on its laurels, and its products slouched. The brand was on the verge of becoming a commodity-name label in discount department stores, one Columbia exec noted. New hires at the company beginning a couple years ago, and a renewed sense that innovation and a range of products (including higher-end items) was key to getting company sales going, has seemingly sparked off a passion internally to shoot for the stars.

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Columbia’s electronically-heated boots and gloves

The bright points in the Columbia cosmos will soon include a line for 2011 with the aforementioned embedded heated elements. There are nine jackets, including soft- and hard-shell models, as well as a winter glove and several boot models laced with carbon-fiber filament and the company’s Omni-Heat Thermal Electric battery technology.

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