Columbia Sportswear speaks to many with one voice

Despite its many different audiences, Columbia Sportswear's PR department is still able to convey a consistent message by immersing itself in the company's marketing mix.

Despite its many different audiences, Columbia Sportswear's PR department is still able to convey a consistent message by immersing itself in the company's marketing mix.

As the mercury plunges around the country, it's not difficult to find someone wearing a jacket or hat emblazoned with Columbia Sportswear's logo. For even the most fair-weather outdoor enthusiast, the Portland, OR-based company is a familiar brand.

Founded in 1938, Columbia has grown from a small family business to the largest supplier of skiwear in the world, as well as a leading supplier of other outerwear, sportswear, and footwear. The company employs more than 1,800 people globally and distributes and sells products in more than 70 countries and to more than 12,000 retailers internationally. Such a presence provides its equal share of advantages and challenges for the company's five-person PR department.

"The major role that PR plays is being the voice of the company," says John Fread, PR manager for Columbia. "We do speak to so many different audiences."

Because the $1.1 billion company is publicly traded, shareholders are just one of those audiences. Others include trade and consumer media, the investment community and analysts, and employees. "One of the primary roles for PR is to be the safekeeper of that messaging," he says, adding that the messaging has to be consistent across global platforms.

Indeed, Columbia's PR department has a hand in almost every facet of the company's marketing activities. Fread refers to the department as collaborative, noting that it works with advertising, promotion - which incorporates athletes and promotional events - and creative services, which includes web content.

Considering PR's immersion into Columbia's marketing mix, it should come as no surprise that it is a highly valued discipline. "We have a huge seat at the table," Fread says. "We are certainly not a second thought at all." As far as funding, the department is able to fight for its share, as well. "We are holding our own," he notes, while admitting that there is always a need for more money.

As any PR practitioner knows, finding those PR dollars depends largely on ROI and business outcomes. And Fread says Columbia's practice of PR is highly dependent on a successful ROI. It is a philosophy that extends to the department's work with outside PR firms. While Columbia doesn't have a traditional AOR, it works with Edelman for most of its PR projects in the US.

Kymra Knuth, an SVP in Edelman's Portland office, says the company is always concerned with whether PR campaigns and activities tie back to business objectives. "Overall, they're a very strategic and forward-thinking company when it comes to PR and advertising," she adds.

One tough mother

The company's story and environmentally friendly position are woven through outreach. Fread notes that Gertrude Boyle, Columbia's 81-year-old chairwoman of the board, plays a big part in the company's PR efforts. Boyle is a story in and of herself: Widowed 35 years ago on a Thursday by the company's president, Neil Boyle, she reported for duty the following Monday to assume his position and take the reins of the growing company. Even as the company went public, she has retained a 50% share and works 40 hours each week. These days, her primary role is to travel around the world to store openings and other events in the public spotlight.

"It's very rare to have the opportunity to have a PR ambassador," Fread says. "To have that opportunity, to have that kind of dynamic with the chair-man of the company and also have the ability to promote and position her from a PR perspective is huge, and it's very unique."

Columbia's PR department also works to promote some of Boyle's outside projects, such as her recent autobiography, titled One Tough Mother, the proceeds from which benefit Special Olympics International and CASA for Kids in Oregon. Boyle has also been featured in the company's TV commercials for more than 25 years, and Fread notes that PR takes a big role in promoting those commercials.

Like the rest of the PR industry, Fread says Columbia's PR department is actively trying to use technology to better reach journalists and Columbia's customers. For Fread, who came from a technology background before joining Columbia last year - he was director of global PR for projector company InFocus - the implementation of technology into the team's tactics was a logical move. Add to this that many of the journalists Columbia is targeting are young and accustomed to such technologies, and it practically becomes a necessity. "It's forcing some of us older PR people to be on our toes," Fread says.

So, to publicize the spring 2006 collection to journalists, the Columbia PR team converted all press kits to USB memory sticks. For a company dedicated to the environment, using something like a USB stick, which is a reusable resource, also keeps in line with the company's image. It also gives a new twist to what can often be considered a staid PR tool.

"We were able to bring digital imagery and Flash animation to life in a press kit that would have been a flat, static printed piece of literature," says Fread, who reports to director of marketing Dan Hanson.

The new method of press kit delivery apparently struck a chord with its intended audience. Fread says the response from consumer and trade editors was highly positive. In fact, a few editors even asked if they could keep the memory stick, which was just fine by the Columbia team, considering it was branded with Columbia's corporate logo. "Anytime that journalist uses it to shuttle information back and forth, they're thinking Columbia's brand of choice in their mind," he says.

The PR department's use of innovation extends to the new media realm. Fread notes that the team is using blogs and chat rooms as a way to reach all different kinds of audiences, both journalists and customers. "Using technology [to find] out what is the best vehicle to reach the audience you want to speak to - that's the fun of trying to find the new mediums out there that we can then tap into with our PR campaigns," he says.

Fread adds that word of mouth and guerrilla-marketing tactics are also high on the department's radar. "Getting that product in the hands of the right end user is critical," he says.

Knuth adds that such tactics are geared toward getting a younger audience for Columbia's products.

Reaching out to other circles

Judy Leand, editor-in-chief of Sporting Goods Business, has worked with Columbia for a number of years on articles for the different publications she oversees, including Sporting Goods Business, Outdoor Business, Hunting Business, and Footwear Business. She says the PR department is always very responsive to her needs. As part of the trade press, she has different requirements from consumer magazines, particularly with deadlines. "I need to see things way in advance," she says. "We're basically on retail buying cycles."

While trade press is an important part of the PR department's job, Knuth notes that Edelman will be helping Columbia raise its visibility in other circles. "From the trade perspective, they're so well-known," she says. "The challenge is reaching out more to the consumer and lifestyle press."

Fread says that the company will continue to reach out to enthusiast groups, especially as it expands outside its realm of core products. Its fall 2006 collection features a line of jackets that allow users to place iPods or similar devices in specially designed pockets and then feed the earpieces and wiring through the jacket into the collar.

From a PR perspective, such a product adds to the type of media that can be pitched, Fread says, citing music or electronics magazines as possibilities. "As a company trying to grow, you're always looking at new audiences and new uses for your product," he says.

PR contacts

PR manager John Fread

PR projects manager Emily Petterson

PR agency Edelman

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