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Columbia Sportswear seeks to become innovation leader with technology launch

Columbia Sportswear is set on upgrading its image to that of a technology innovation leader. In an exclusive preview story, SNEWS got an early peek at what the company is launching this week to media at an event in San Francisco.

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Columbia Sportswear, long been known as a leading outdoor apparel and footwear company, hasn’t necessarily been associated of late with top innovation and design creativity.

But look for that to change: Columbia is set on upgrading its image. So much so that it’s now calling itself a technology company as it debuted product and fabric advancements at a June 14 media event at the San Francisco California Academy of Sciences. There, with nearly 30 journalists strolling through an indoor rain forest, the Portland, Ore.-based company (NASDAQ:COLM) launched three new technologies, apparel and footwear products, and announced it would enter both trail packs and sleeping bags for Spring 2012.

“Our commitment to innovation runs throughout our entire product offering, and this commitment sets us apart from the competition,” Woody Blackford, vice president of innovation for Columbia, told SNEWS® in an exclusive interview prior to the event. “Our family of technologies has been designed with the consumer in mind and with the idea we need to make technology simple to understand and use.”

This launch signifies for the company — parent to the Mountain Hardwear, Sorel and Montrail brands, as well as to OutDry – a key turning point of the trail it began in 2008 when it launched the start of its family that includes mostly “Omni” branded innovations.

Forget fancy names, though. In the end the company wants to keep the consumer “warm, dry, cool and protected,” as company executives told SNEWS.

“Whether it’s keeping the end-user warm, dry, cool or protected, our entire focus is on providing serious solutions for a simple challenge,” Blackford said, “and that is enhancing the customer’s experience of the outdoors with the best products they can buy.”


While the promise of providing innovation and technology may be simple, the path to getting there has been anything but. In fact, it seems almost as if the company jumped into the deep end of the pool from the start. Consider that in 2008, when the pursuit of the technology excellence initiative was first launched at Columbia, the company owned just nine patents (six utility patents for Mountain Hardwear, two design patents for Columbia, and one utility patent for Montrail). As of June 2011, Columbia has filed what it calls 147 “patent families” with 57 issued patents (10 utility and 47 design) and 90 (19 utility and 71 design) U.S. patent applications now pending.

The marathon has just begun

So what launched this pursuit of excellence? Mick McCormick, executive vice president for Columbia, told us that the process really began early in 2008 with significant ethnographic research, meeting with customers in their homes to discuss with them their experiences in the outdoors.

“We spoke to active Americans, and we video-taped them in their environment from inside their homes and as a result, they were brutally honest in what they told us,” said McCormick. “What blew us away is customers did not talk science or technology at all. The first thing they were concerned with is what will the weather be like, and then based on that they would make their decisions about what to use for their outdoor activity based entirely on wanting to be comfortable.”

With that information, the design and innovation teams at Columbia realized the science and technology behind all of the developments was certainly cool and techy, but it was too much, even for the “gearheads” they talked to.

“We said, ‘oh my goodness, we’ve over-thought this,’” added Blackford.

The message to the media in San Francisco, including SNEWS editors, was the same one of simplicity that the company intends to take to the consumer. Forget Mr. Science – although testing kits will be available to retailers who want to play with or show off the technology — the company would speak to customers in simple terms – how the innovation is designed to keep the user warm, dry, cool and protected.

“Apple is brilliant around presenting technology with simplicity,” said McCormick. “Our customers were telling us that life was already overwhelming and too complicated, and they just wanted buying and wearing decisions to be easy.

“And if it isn’t cute, none of the other matters,” he added.

What Columbia also learned — something internally it already knew — was that its product did not look very good and had become very stale. So, the company hired someone McCormick stated was “the best of the best to head up our design organization” — Kathleen McNally, creative director of apparel for Columbia.

“She was head of design for Lucy and, before that, JCrew and, before that, Nike and she is spectacular,” said McCormick. “You have good outerwear designers that come from our industry but to really stand out you have to make the outerwear yummy.”

McCormick pointed out Columbia also reengineered the entire footwear design team. And while the company started rolling out new innovations almost every season beginning in 2009, McCormick insisted that Columbia is just beginning.

“If this is a marathon, we are a half-mile into it,” said McCormick. “We’re running well, but we have a very long way to go.”

Testing and more testing

Helping the company in its self-proclaimed race to the top as a technology leader is a unique set of product testers – all unpaid. Blackford told SNEWS that the company does not use paid athletes since the feedback is simply not as honest or accurate as it needs to be since they are paid by the company.

Instead, the company has assembled a team of very active, non-professional product users from around the globe. During a design process, Columbia will send these beta testers product that is not named or labeled, and they provide no instruction of any kind. What the company gets from this is very honest feedback and information that helps the designers ensure, Blackford told us, the products being offered are meeting real needs and performing as expected.”

The testing is not without some surprises, and, we suspect, unpleasant consequences for some testers. In a test for Omni-Freeze Ice, which looks like a base layer, a few used it for skiing, only to find they had to peel it off to get and to stay warm.

“This is not marketing B.S. we are bringing,” McCormick said.

Investors are also taking notice since the company reported revenue of $333.1 million for the first quarter 2011 – up 11 percent from $300.4 million during the same period a year ago. Wholesale backlog orders reached a record $860.8 million as of March 31, 2011 — a 19 percent increase from a year ago. Click here to read the full details in an April 28, 2011, SNEWS financial report.

‘Our growth has come from innovation,” McCormick said at the event. “It’s organic.”

For this debut, Columbia highlighted to SNEWS two new apparel technologies and one footwear technology:

>> Omni-Wick Evap provides next-to-skin comfort through a yarn and filament structure that is “amplified” with multitudes of rib-like structures that serve to expand the surface area and the contact with the skin. One jacket may have more surface area than a football field. That means quicker wicking and faster drying time.

>> Omni-Freeze Ice uses the body’s natural cooling mechanism of sweat to release heat from the skin as sweat evaporates. But the technology goes a step further. The moment moisture hits the fabric’s surface, temperature is lowered to create an immediate cooling sensation through polymers integrated into the yarn structure. Add sweat, and the polymers swell and that transfers the heat energy. As they dry the yarns shrink again, ready to swell – and cool – again when sweating increases.

>> Techlite FluidFrame uses the company’s Techlite foam in the midsole, blending multiple densities to create varying levels of support and stability with a single foam layer.

Aside from entering the product categories of trail packs and sleeping bags, Columbia pointed to two key items or categories:

>> The Compounder Shell will highlight several technologies. The shell uses Omni-Dry, to keep the users dry from the outside as well as comfortable with high breathability, and it uses Omni-Wick Evap, to keep users dry through accelerated wicking.

>> In terms of footwear, Columbia will fine-tune its focus to strictly off-road, including hiking, trail running and multi-sport. “At Columbia, we want to be a pure outdoor footwear brand that matters,” said Mark Nenow, vice president of footwear, merchandising and design in an earlier interview.

That means the company will continue to use the OutDry technology in its footwear, including the Ravenous II OutDry trail runner. Also look for the Powerdrain hybrid water shoe designed to perform in and out of water but maintaining the look of a running shoe. The Powerdran for fishing, kayaking and boating uses Omni-Grip and Techlight technology.

“We’re trying to expand the category of outdoors,” Blackford said, “and not make it exclusive.”

–Michael Hodgson and Therese Iknoian