Columbus explores fresh territory with big brand overhaul

  • Marketing
  • September 6, 2013
  • Ben Fahy
Columbus explores fresh territory with big brand overhaul

Columbus Coffee kicked off in 1995 and it’s grown considerably since then, with 54 stores now dotted around the country. But after an 18 month project to breathe some new life into the brand, the chain is celebrating a new look, a new menu, new fit outs, new products and a host of new partnerships.

New Zealand is fairly passionate about its coffee. We have more roasters per capita than anywhere in the world, and Wellington has more cafes per head than New York. But managing director Graeme Tait says very few know that Columbus was instrumental in the creation of that coffee culture.

He says the original founders, one of whom was David Burton, were roasting pioneers who “wanted to rid New Zealand of Kona coffee machines”. And as Burton, who established Burton Hollis in 1989, roasts and sells his own brand of coffee and is still Columbus Coffee’s roast master, explains on the Columbus website: "People had started coming back from overseas and were wanting something similar to what they had seen in Europe. The first few cafes were opening as people got a taste for true espresso rather than filter or percolator coffee. We [the first cafe on Auckland's High St] were pretty big news back then. The store was quite unlike anything New Zealand had seen, and the focus was really on coffee in every sense. Different beans from around the word, different brewing methods – this was all quite new territory for Kiwis and it was very exciting. I remember, we'd sit and wait at about 9.55am for the crazy rush that would ensue at ten. People were mad for coffee and couldn't get enough of it. And it just grew from there. The laws had changed and outdoor seating was now allowed. This was the start of the explosion of cafes we see today." 

Tait says there are a few large chains Columbus is up against, specifically Starbucks and Robert Harris. But there's also a huge number of independent cafes, and an added focus on espresso coffee from fast food and oil companies to contend with, so it’s a very competitive market. But while Tait wouldn’t be drawn on revenue figures, he says the business is faring well. The store base has grown from 27 in March 2010 to 54 today, 100 percent growth, and it serves on average 14,300 customers a day throughout the network.

The original brand refresh pitch was won by a partnership between brand consultancy Onemata (led by Anna Walker, who has been kept on board as consultant brand/marketing manager for roll-out), design studio Switch and retail designers Adrian Nancekivell Design. And after a big research project, the guiding strategy and brand framework was developed. 

“This was the first real review of who we are and where we sit in the market," says Tait. "We have pretty audacious goals so we had to look at all aspects of the brand. And what we found was that the bones of Columbus are very strong. The logo, the colours, the core values around what we wanted to deliver to customers didn’t change. But there were things we needed to amplify and reweight.”

And one of those was that consumers saw it simply as a coffee house.

“Despite the fact we’ve got kitchens, food cabinets suggest we bring things in, because that’s the experience they have at other cafes.”

Tait, who has worked with Cadbury, Tip-Top and set up New Zealand Natural Ice-cream in New Zealand, has been involved with the business since 2001 and he says that particular insight showed that the brand's food story needed to be told better. And while the franchise model by its very nature requires a degree of consistency and centralisation, he says the research also showed that it "needed to loosen up a bit" and reflect the individuality of the stores, their owners and the community so it didn’t look like a big chain "with a cookie cutter approach”.

He gives the example of allowing franchisees the flexibility to promote the local, seasonal favourites alongside the core menu, such as the high tea at the Dominion Road location, or the new instore imagery showing the brand’s heritage. Tait says it didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water when it came to the retail refresh (it costs $300,000 to fit out a cafe), so it was about decreasing the noise and focusing on “showing a piece of art more than a piece of communication”.

The research also showed brand awareness was really strong, but a lot of people didn’t know Columbus was locally owned, so it also needed to drive that home in the comms.

“Mitre 10 in New Zealand is a bit like us," he says. "... It’s about building on the strength of the local operators while using the power of the brand at a national level so it can compete against the likes of Bunnings.”

A number of Columbus stores operate inside Mitre 10 Mega locations. And, given it doesn’t have a huge ad budget, smart partnerships are a big part of its strategy, Tait says. For example, rather than use a uniform supplier, it joined forces with Barkers to create the staff gear; it provided one million branded cups for Cure Kids; it’s about to launch a partnership with Random House; it has partnered with Resene for paint pots; and, in one of its biggest moves, it has struck up a deal with the Healthy Food Guide.

Tait says it’s been working with the magazine brand around menu options that get its tick of approval. It started off at Auckland Hospital branch, but it’s expected to be rolled out across other cafes soon (Columbus coupons also feature on the cover of the magazine).

Healthy Food Guide has built a reputation around trust and we have to honour that. It’s not the easiest way to do it. We could have put out a range of healthy options ourselves. But it’s harder when it’s being measured by someone else.”

From a comms point of view, it revealed the changes at a national franchisee conference and, because getting them excited about the changes was so important, it was all based around "getting people on board the 'Colum Bus”. There will be a mix of national and local activity, but it will continue to engage with its 15,000-strong database with a range of fresh content, and it has also created a magazine campaign to announce some of the changes. Getting the message out is quite challenging, however, because he says it attracts such a wide demographic, from the growing market that is teenagers coming in after school to retirees and business folk. 

In addition to these changes, it has launched a new website (by Jiminy), a Facebook page (which is already up to 5,000 fans and is managed by Curve Social), a new range of take-home products in more natural, less corporate packaging, and its Kids Club, with art provided by Sarah Laing. 

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