October 11, 2011
How To

Email Branding: Columbia Sportswear turns away from promotional emails in favor of brand and product awareness

SUMMARY: Email marketers who only consider their online impact might be missing part of the picture. Increasing offline sales, raising brand awareness, and other hard-to-measure benefits are often ignored for hard and fast conversion goals -- but not at Columbia Sportswear.

Check out how this apparel brand shifted its email program away from promotional emails and toward branded messages. See why the team took an \"educational\" approach instead of a hard sales push, and why Columbia designs its emails for mobile audiences.
by Adam T. Sutton, Senior Reporter

A subscriber who fails to purchase online in response to your email is not necessarily a wasted opportunity. For example, the 2010 Global Perspectives report from E-Dialog notes 58% of global consumers said email marketing caused them to purchase in an offline store or call center. That figure hit 51% for U.S. consumers.

Marketing teams have responded, with 91% of email marketers saying their messages are at least somewhat effective at supporting offline programs, and 26% saying they are very effective, according to the MarketingSherpa 2011 Email Marketing Benchmark Report. Furthermore, 93% of email marketers say their messages are at least somewhat effective at building brand awareness, and 37% say they are very effective.

Email marketers at Columbia Sportswear began "turning away from promotional emails" about eight months ago, says Garret Gonzales, Ecommerce Creative Manager, Columbia Sportswear. His team has not abandoned sales-driven messages entirely, but is increasingly sending emails that "tell a bigger story about the brand," he says.

"We wanted to focus on messages that are brand-building, and can engage our customers and educate them so they have all the information they need to buy our products in any of our distribution channels," says Ali Norwood, Ecommerce Marketing Specialist, Columbia Sportswear.

Even without a hard call-to-action to purchase, Columbia's emails "are seeing great engagement across all of our audience segments," and are driving business and educating customers, Norwood says. Since launch, the emails' open rates have increased 40%, and clickthrough rates have increased 65%.

Below, we describe why Columbia is sending these emails and outline the four tactics it uses to raise awareness and prime customers to purchase in any channel.

Tactic #1. Promote and educate

Columbia sends a variety of emails. Some include discounts and offers, and others are part of a bi-monthly newsletter. The company's newer branding emails, however, are sent monthly and focus on the company's newest products and apparel technology.

"Our main goal is to take these [apparel] technologies, and all this innovation that Columbia has been moving forward with and make sure we share the information with our customers in a way they understand," Norwood says.

For example, the emails include messaging such as

  • Email 1: "Omni-Heat: 20% warmer according to scientists and cold people"

  • Email 2: "The first heated winter boot."

  • Email 3: "As waterproof as a nuclear submarine."

Every email links to a product page, and some emails include buttons to "shop online," but the goal is not to drive direct sales. The goal is to raise awareness of Columbia's latest products and innovations, and prepare customers for purchase in any channel.

With this goal in mind, the emails' landing pages include:

  • A technology page that describes the latest features in Columbia's products

  • Product category pages that include banners or videos that encourage visitors to "learn more" about the technology

  • Product pages that include expandable banners, video and copy that explain the technology

Tactic #2. Design the message across departments

Columbia pulls a variety of departments together to set the messaging for its latest products. For example, the product, innovation, and marketing teams set the messaging and phrases that describe new products and features.

A volume of content and terms is approved, and it directs all marketing material about the products. This approach helps ensure the content will achieve goals across the organization.

"We all work together to build that content and turn it into a message that is digestible, that the consumers can understand, and that will help them make informed decisions," Gonzales says. "Then it's our creative team's job to take that information and put it in a format that's going to work across all email browsers and be relevant to that specific audience."

Tactic #3. Build the brand

The emails support the company's brand on several levels:

First, the emails often feature backgrounds and images of the outdoors, such as hikers or snowy mountains. These images support the company's focus on the outdoors.

Second, the emails typically focus on Columbia's newest products and technology. The landing pages’ videos and content describe technical aspects of the products, and sometimes highlight Columbia's research facility. This helps position the brand as a global leader in outdoor sportswear design.

Third, the emails avoid seeming stuffy or overly technical by describing products clearly and incorporating light humor, such as:

"Introducing the lightest, most breathable waterproof technology you can find. Yep, we said it."

Finally, the emails' sleek designs, and their ability to render well across mobile devices, help to again position Columbia's brand as leading and innovative.

"As Columbia continues to elevate our technological innovations and products, we want to be sure to produce equally innovative communications," Gonzales says.

Tactic #4. Look good across devices

Emails intended to support sales through a variety of channels will likely benefit from reaching a variety of subscribers, regardless of their preferred device. Columbia's team ensures its emails look clean and sharp on the latest smartphones, tablet PCs and the standard desktop browsers.

"We definitely use the best practices in the development of our emails so that they can work well in as many devices as possible, always taking into consideration how they degrade gracefully across platforms," Gonzales says.

This helps ensure the team reaches a diverse group within its database. Subscribers who have adopted an alternative channel to read emails (such as a smartphone) will not be excluded from this message. This is logical, since the emails are designed to enable subscribers to act in any channel.

While the team would not reveal the details behind its designs, we have included specific tips for creating mobile-friendly emails. They are pulled from the MarketingSherpa 2011 Email Marketing Advanced Practices Handbook and should serve as a starting point from which to test.

  • Narrow your email - use a single-column format and shoot for about 320 pixels in width

  • Increase font sizes - minimum of 14-point fonts for text and about 30-point fonts for headlines

  • Add space around links - smartphones typically have touchscreens, so make sure your links have plenty of space around them for easy tapping

  • Be brief - the content above the fold is even more important for smartphone readers. Ensure you grab attention, and be sure to test having a call-to-action in the first screen

  • Leverage a mobile site - marketing emails often encourage readers to click, so you'll need a mobile-optimized website to receive smartphone traffic. Having a mobile site also allows you to include a link to a mobile-optimized version of the email on a webpage, in case readers have trouble viewing the email

  • Preview and test - of course, always make sure your email looks good before sending. If you have a healthy cross-section of devices in your office, you can start by testing your messages there. Paid third-party software is also available to help you test emails across mobile platforms, and there is a growing number of vendors that will help you perfect your designs

Tactic #5. Avoid a one-off approach

Columbia sends these emails monthly to the majority of its subscribers. This frequency is twice as often as the team's email newsletter, underlining the team's shift toward brand-centric messages.

The team occasionally tweaks messaging for different segments, which helps ensure the emails stay relevant to subscribers' interests. The team will sometimes avoid sending the emails to newer or less-engaged subscribers. This places more emphasis on the other emails Columbia sends this audience.

"If they're new to the list and they need to learn specifically what some of our key offerings are by being more closely associated to Columbia, then that would take precedence over some of these larger emails," Gonzales says.

However, with these caveats, the emails are consistent and received by a majority of the team's audience, representing a true shift away from emails that focus on direct sales.

"We want to share these messages with our consumers to help them make better buying decisions in all shopping channels," Gonzales says.

Useful links related to this article

1. Email 1
2. Email 2
3. Email 3
4. Email 4
5. Knowledge center
6. Product category page
7. Product page
8. Email newsletter

MarketingSherpa 2011 Email Marketing Handbook

Mobile Email Marketing: 5 tactics to engage and convert smartphone users

Boost Foot Traffic, Grow Lists, and More: 5 Tactics for Generating Offline Actions from Email

Consumer Marketing: Turning online traffic into offline action leads to 50% conversion to sale

Email Marketing: Short 'staff selection' posts become most-clicked content, increase offline sales 10%

Columbia Sportswear

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