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2 Playing the Waiting Game
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4 The county not on a map
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32 On Top of the World
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40 Winter Wonderland
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55 Guanxi Building
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Standing Out in China

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Sizing up the brand

These days, some Beijing taxis come equipped with a small TV screen housed in the back of the front seat passenger's head rest.  Just the thing to while away the hours when stuck in one of the capital's infamous traffic jams one might have thought.  Well, one would have been hopelessly wrong... the programme schedule actually consists of ads, ads, and a few more ads thrown in for good measure.  The notion that content is king and that advertising should be a light seasoning sprinkled on the daily viewing meal, and not the staple diet, has somehow escaped the attention of the media company that owns the screens.  And so, after a few seconds, I lost interest and turned my attention to something more interesting – the intricate stitching on the headrest cover.

  

   Then something caught my attention.  People wearing just their underwear and a brave face were being pelted with snowballs and blasted with snow from a snow machine.  The thought that I was watching some new, sadomasochistic winter X game was dispelled when I caught the point of the film.   It was a technology commercial no less.  But a technology commercial with a difference.  The technology is Omni-Heat, the brand is Columbia Sportswear.

  

   There was also something about little silver dots, heat retention, and other high-tech stuff, but the words were less striking than the product demonstration.  People, still in their knickers, who were by now turning various hues of blue, were donning Columbia jackets, and instantly thawing out.  This is a product demonstration right out of the marketing manual:  Dramatise the problem (life-threatening hypothermia is a particularly eye-catching dramatisation), and then a quick cut to the surprising solution (in this case, the life-saving 'Omni-Heated' Columbia jacket).

  

   After getting out of the warmth of the cab, and heading into the biting northerly breeze that was whistling around the high towers of Beijing's Central Business District, my thoughts returned to Omni-Heat and, more to the point, my realisation that the 'feathers' in my synthetic down jacket were far less 'advanced' than they should have been.  I concluded that I was wearing yesteryear's winter-protection and that my discomfort  (now that I knew about the life-saving advantage of Omni-Heat) was self-inflicted.  Resigned to my fate, I pushed on, head down; while cursing the Beijing climate and the manufacturer of my jacket with equal vehemence.

 

   I then turned the corner and was astonished to see that some of the people from the ad I had just watched had, by some quirk of fate and otherworldly portal, been teleported to Beijing and were standing naked before me.  Naked, that is, except for their Omni-Heated jacket which was held in front of them.  "Feathers!?" they seemed to be mocking.  "Serves you bloody well right!". 

 

   It was not until I got closer to the shop window that I realised that the figures were actually cardboard cut-outs.  From the startled reactions of some of the people who caught the cut-outs out of the corner of their eye, it was clear that I wasn't the only one to be fooled by the window display.  I managed to snap several shots of the reactions of passers-by before the cold got too much, and I just had to move on.

 

   Columbia Sportswear have been around in China for many years, but this is the first time that they have grabbed my attention.  Then again, according to Dan Hanson, Vice President of Marketing at Columbia Sportswear, it would have been hard for me to miss it.  He told Business Wire that “...We will be telling the Omni-Heat story through a vast array of media channels and creative executions that will make it nearly impossible for any consumer to miss the significance of this innovative warmth technology.”

 

   'Innovation' is clearly something that Columbia take very seriously.  The company, which has its headquarters in Oregon (harsh winters spring to mind), has even created the position of "director of global innovation".  That post was held by Michael 'Woody' Blackford, before he was promoted to the position of Vice President of Global Innovation in August last year.   The affable Woody told Outdoorindustry.org, a trade news website, that innovation was the difference between success and failure in the highly-competitive sports apparel category.  He likened the brand drivers of the category to that of the computer category's: 

 

   "We don't want to be stuck in the position of PC makers who are essentially at the mercy of Microsoft and Intel to bring innovation to the market... You do that and you find yourself in the commodity business.  We are more attracted to what Apple has done, where they control both the hardware and software and have happy customers," said Mr Blackford.  It is clear from this analogy that Columbia regard Omni-Heat as the brand's proprietary software.

 

    It is not surprising that, as the brand has become more high profile and better able to command higher prices, it has been increasingly targeted by unscrupulous manufacturers in China looking to cash-in on its fame and fortune.  Columbia realise that brand-building through innovation is only sustainable if the integrity of the brand name is not compromised by the evils of counterfeiting.  It has therefore focussed on working with the Chinese authorities in an effort to cut off the supply of knock-offs. 

 

   As well as waging war on the companies that manufacture the counterfeit items and the retailers that sell them, Columbia has joined forces with other high profile brand names in an effort to target the landlords who knowingly lease retail space to unscrupulous traders – such as the landlords of the Beijing Silk Market, one of the main counterfeiters' trading centres in China (and one of the most glaringly embarrassing contradictions to the Chinese authorities' claim that it is doing all it can to protect intellectual property).  

 

   Last winter, in the war to defend the integrity of its intellectual property, Columbia Sportswear participated in more than 50 factory, warehouse and retail raids across China.  Let's hope that, this winter, Omni-Heat’s "distinctive reflective silver-dot lining", which a spokesperson for the brand went on to describe as "...The most innovative warmth solution to hit the outdoor industry in decades and allows consumers to see the technology as well as feel it”, doesn't become an even bigger target for the apparel category's hardware and 'software' fraudsters.   

 

   There is at least one aspect of this category that is not analogous to computer hardware and software though: wittingly or unwittingly, purchasing a counterfeit item in this category could lead to a slow, painful death. 

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Getting noticed