Old school, new tricks

The venerable Columbia House, which had its origins in an age of snap-brim fedoras and gleaming tailfins, has today fully embraced the marketing methods of the new millennium. As evidence, consider figures released recently by Internet audience measurement firm Media Metrix....

The venerable Columbia House, which had its origins in an age of snap-brim fedoras and gleaming tailfins, has today fully embraced the marketing methods of the new millennium.

As evidence, consider figures released recently by Internet audience measurement firm Media Metrix. ColumbiaHouseCanada.com ranked among the top five Canadian-originating e-commerce sites along with retail powerhouses Chapters Online, Indigo and the Hudson’s Bay Company. Overall, Columbia House Canada attracted more than 515,000 visitors in the month of December, 1999.

‘When we launched our site in 1996, we saw the Internet as an emerging medium,’ recalls Harjinder Atwal, executive vice-president and general manager of Toronto-based Columbia House Canada. ‘We thought it would be a good fit with our customers.

‘And over time, it’s actually worked better than we envisioned. It has surprised everyone.’

All Columbia House customers – whether through traditional direct channels, or through the Internet – want their orders filled quickly, says Atwal, and the Web is especially suited for that.

It’s a natural, he says, for both younger members who are more at ease with using the Internet, as well as older members who are traditionally reluctant to supply payment information, even over secured Web sites. For with Columbia House, the merchandise is sent with the bill. Members can also accept merchandise and make payments through Canada Post’s ePost service.

Approximately 15% of Columbia House Canada music orders now come through the Web, and Atwal is confident that figure will increase as more Canadians embrace Internet technology.

‘We project that soon half of all Canadians will be online,’ he says (current figures from Ernst & Young indicate that 39% of Canadians are now surfing the Web). ‘That’s good for our future.’

Despite the inroads being made by the Internet, Atwal says Columbia House views the Web as a supplement to, and not a competitor with, its direct mail channel.

‘It hasn’t replaced direct mail, not at all,’ he continues. ‘We have not done away with mailing the catalogue. In fact, not all of the catalogue is online.’ He adds that new members who join online will continue to receive print mailings. The company is working on the creation of a completely electronic membership in the future but, for now, all members still receive the regular club mailings, which translate to at least 18 buying opportunities per year.

Meanwhile, Columbia House Canada is working on customizing its electronic catalogue for each member, based on his or her buying habits. The company issues each visitor a membership number, which is requested each time a shopper wishes to respond to an offer.

Overall, music retailing has also moved online with a bullet. Sam the Record Man and HMV both sell music, videos and DVDs over the Web. And, until very recently, BMG Music Club Canada competed head-to-head with Columbia House.

‘We do realize that there is significant competition for music products with a number of Internet players marketing their products over the Web,’ says Atwal. ‘But we’ve been there for more than three years and the way we market is different.’

And Atwal says the Columbia House business model, essentially created by direct marketing guru Lester Wunderman of the one-cent-offer fame, is also carved in stone.

‘Customers have more control over their accounts and we can communicate with them instantaneously,’ he says. ‘Lester’s vision of one-to-one marketing is slowly becoming a reality.’

From Karen Howe’s dining table: Creativity, COVID and Cannes

ICYMI, The Township's founder gathers the best of the best campaigns and trends so far.

Cannes Base Camp

By Karen Howe

I’m attending Cannes from the glory of my dining room table. There’s not a palm tree in sight, yet inspiration and intel are present in abundance.

Cannes Lions is a global cultural pulse check. The social course correction in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and BLM has delivered far greater diversity in the judging panels as well as the work. And we are all better for it.

I’m proud to say that creativity defeated COVID, which speaks to its power. Great work and big ideas flourished, despite unimaginable odds.

The work from the past two years spans a vast emotional range. From the profundity of Dove’s “Courage is Beautiful” to the hyper exuberance of Burberry’s “Festive,” they are opposite ends of the spectrum, but each answered a need in us.

Take note, the ascendency of gaming cannot be understated. Smart brands have embraced the channel. It makes sense, because gamers participate to meet others around the world, not just to play. And they represent a huge and powerful community. That’s why QSR Wendy’s gamified their iconic gal in RPG’s Feast of Legends.

Burger King sponsored the unknown Stevenage Football Club, transforming the team into online heroes and vaulting BK into the fray at the same time. Once again, the brand embedded itself in culture.

The birth of gaming tourism arrived when Xbox snuggled up to travel guides and created a brilliant baby: a travel guide for gaming worlds. It, too, embedded itself in culture.

From the standpoint of social good, Reporter Without Borders showed how it worked with Mindcraft for its “Uncensored Library” to bypass press censorship, with Minecraft providing a loophole to a space where young people could be educated. It provided youth with a powerful tool to fight oppression: truth.

COVID changed us in unexpected ways. We learned how to pay attention again and there was a notable lack of 30-second commercials. Instead, longer format content thrived. Apple’s WFH was seven minutes long. Entertainment reigned king, so we find ourselves returning to our advertising roots.

Seeing competitive brands form partnerships was one of this year’s other great surprises. The brilliantly simple “Beer Cap Project” by Aguila to reduce binge-drinking saw the brand reach out to competitive beers to join in. Aguila put incentivizing (keyword: free) reminders to drink water, eat food and get home safely on its bottle caps from all sorts of fast food chains, ride-share co’s and H2O brands.

On a personal level, I’m so proud of Canada again this year. Given that it was two years of work from all over the world being judged, even making the Cannes shortlist was an accomplishment. Canada is herding in the Lions in tremendous numbers – and it’s not even over. Fingers are crossed.

KAREN-HOWE-PIC-higher-rez-300x263Karen Howe is a Canadian Cannes Advisory Board Member and founder of The Township Group