One tough mother, two marketing objectives.

It’s an old debate… can brand advertising actually move the needle on bottom-line business objectives? Ad agency execs say yes, but direct response guys don’t concur. Marketing Directors and C-level execs are often skeptical.

My humble opinion… absolutely. When it’s done well, an “image” ad campaign certainly can move product, and I have a case study that proves it.

Meet Gert Boyle, the iconic matriarch of Columbia Sportswear, and a face only a mother could love.

28_200705251701111Gert’s story is an inspiration and a testament to the power of well-executed advertising. The campaign by Borders, Perrin & Norrander bridged the great divide between image advertising and product-oriented response ads and helped the company become the number one outdoor apparel company in the country. No doubt about it.

Gert inherited the family business in 1970 after her husband’s untimely heart attack. At the time, Columbia was generating $650,000 a year in sales, but was teetering on the brink of insolvency. Although the company made a popular line of fishing and hunting apparel, profitability had been a problem for years. To make matters worse, Neal Boyle had offered three family-owned homes and his life insurance policy as collateral for an SBA loan.

The pressure was on, and after the first year Gert seriously considered selling. But when the deal fell apart she dug her heels in, made some tough decisions, and with help from her son Tim, turned the business around. By 1978 they reached $1million in sales. By 1983, they were up to $12 million.

The first ad campaign that Borders did for Columbia touted the technical aspects of their product and said, “We don’t just design it, we engineer it.”

Ooops. It was a message more suited for the biggest competitors, like Patagonia or North Face, than Columbia. Gert Boyle’s product wasn’t the most technical on the market, nor the most fashionable. It wasn’t a brand you’d see on an expedition up Everest, so the engineering angle missed the mark. It was brand advertising that didn’t capture the heart of the brand.

Columbia products represented functional practicality. Their jackets sold for half the price of their competitors, and were perfectly suitable for 95% of the population who are outside enthusiasts, but not extremists. The brand was more about braving the Oregon rain than assaulting the seven summits.

So in the fall of 1984, Bill Borders and his team came up with something completely different: They started featuring Gert herself in Columbia’s ads. They portrayed her as stubborn, finicky and overprotective. They showed the product and touted benefits in long copy ads, but always in context with Mother Boyle’s quality control efforts. Nothing gets by her!

As it turned out, Gert embodied everything the Columbia brand is about. She was the most obnoxious, bullheaded, effective pitchman ever, and people loved her.

In her book, Gert said “The impact of the ads was almost instantaneous. Sales quickly increased, and I was surprised when strangers came up to me on the streets and asked if I was the “Tough Mother.” Better yet, the image created in the ads took hold. Instead of seeing us as just another outerwear company, our customers thought of us as the company where the cranky, crotchety old broad made sure they were getting a good product at a fair price.”

Once Gert and Tim realized they had a big hit they turned up the heat, outspending their competitors by a wide margin. They started running TV spots where Gert used her hapless son as a product-testing guinea pig. She sent him through a car wash, dumped him, unconscious, on the summit of a mountain. Froze him in the ice and drove over him with a Zamboni. All with the tagline: Tested Tough.

Fun stuff. And spot-on from a branding standpoint. (See them at: www.columbia.com/tv_ads/tv_ads.aspx)

“Our ads set us apart from the corporate pack. People related to us because they believe there is a person at Columbia who really cares. And the best thing about our ads is that they are true. I really do care.” – Gert Boyle.

Authenticity. Differentiation. Credibility. And increased sales. What more could you want in an ad campaign?

When the campaign launched in 1984, sales were $18 million. By 1990 Columbia hit the $100 million dollar mark. Today they’re the number one outerwear company in the world, with 2008 sales of $1.32 billion.

Unfortunately, there are signs that point to a backsward shift in Columbia’s advertising. Last year they left Borders and hired a bigger agency to “execute a global communications strategy.”

Borrrrrrring.

Borrrrrrring.

Makes me wonder what that strategy is. Their website and on-line marketing efforts don’t have any of the brand personality of the old Gert-Boyle ads. Now you have predictable, stock photography of pretty-looking models staged in picture-perfect outdoor settings.

Gert said it best: “The tall, thin, blonde models in our competitor’s ads may be easier on the eyes, but they don’t care about you like good old Mother Boyle.”

And I bet they don’t move product like her, either.

About the Author

I’m a brand strategist, creative director, copywriter and published author living in the very livable town of Bend, Oregon. I’m also an ad agency veteran and owner of BNBranding. Read more about me »

Leave a Reply 3 comments

Cha Ching Reply

I guess I am not surprised they changed up their ad campaign. I just read something about this the other day, it is call complacency – they have attained / exceeded their goal, virtually no competition it isn’t about brand anymore, it is about bottom line and by going with a bigger agency they think they will get more. As if they needed anymore. What a pity.

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