Marketing Campaign Case Studies

Thursday, June 5, 2008


By 2005 the Portland, Oregon–based Columbia Sportswear Company was the largest seller of skiwear in the United States and an industry leader worldwide. Founded in 1938 by German immigrants Paul and Marie Lamfrom and their daughter Gert, the company grew into a billion-dollar-a-year enterprise by 2003. Much of Columbia’s growth was attributed to the 1984 launch of its signature ‘‘Mother Boyle’’ advertising campaign, which placed Gert Boyle, who became the company’s CEO in 1970, front and center as the company’s spokesperson. The grandmother with the fake ‘‘Born to Nag’’ tattoo proved an instant success as the personification of Columbia Sportswear’s no-nonsense durability. Beginning in 1984 the print ads and television spots created by Columbia’s advertising agency, Portlandbased Borders Perrin Norrander, cemented the company’s reputation for manufacturing coats, hats, and other cold-weather apparel that could stand up to the harshest weather conditions. The implication of the humorous advertising, especially the television spots in which Gert inflicted torture on her real-life son, Tim, the company’s president and CEO since 1995, was that Columbia’s products, particularly the heavy-duty parkas, were as tough as the ‘‘one tough mother’’ who ran the company. A typical television spot from 2000 featured Gert driving a Zamboni across an ice rink. When she passed over a drinking straw poking through the ice, viewers saw Tim embedded in the ice, using the straw to breathe. Presumably his Columbia parka made the frigid temperature bearable. As Columbia’s primary marketing campaign, ‘‘Mother Boyle’’ received the lion’s share of the company’s advertising budget over the years, which in 2004 alone amounted to $15 million.
The success of the campaign was evident through its longevity. For more than 20 years Gert Boyle played the company’s stone-faced matriarch, exposing her son to heinous conditions in the television spots and scolding readers in print ads. When the campaign began in 1984, Columbia Sportswear’s annual sales were $13 million; by 1997 that number had reached $358 million. Most importantly the campaign gave the company a recognizable public face. Gert Boyle proved irresistible to reporters, who flocked to profile her, thereby giving the company free publicity in magazines such as Time and Forbes, a writer from which dubbed her ‘‘a Leona Helmsley with humor.’’ In 2005 Boyle capitalized on her popularity by publishing her autobiography, One Tough Mother: Success in Life, Business, and Apple Pies.

Columbia’s marketing strategy relied heavily on Boyle’s rags-to-riches life story and her supersized personality. The tale of a homemaker with three children who was thrust into the business world after her husband suddenly died was as American as apple pie. Having the moxie to stand up to the bankers and lawyers who wanted her to sell the company for pennies and persevering long enough to turn it into a major brand made her a hero in the business world. ‘‘Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise’’ was her oft-stated motto. Columbia Sportswear hit its stride in the early 1980s when it introduced the Bugaboo ski jacket, a two-in-one system comprising a detachable liner and an outer shell, both of which could be worn separately. Apart from the product, the timing was right. People were beginning to spend more time outdoors and were also adopting a more casual approach to outerwear than in previous years. The fitness craze made outdoor sports, skiing in particular, more popular than ever before. The Bugaboo jacket became the company’s signature product, selling millions of units over the next two decades.
Gert Boyle assumed the helm of the company in 1970 following the unexpected death of her husband, Neal Boyle, who had taken over from Gert’s father several years earlier. Lawyers urged her to sell the struggling company, but she refused. For the paltry sum they were willing to pay her, she figured it made more sense for her to run the company into the ground herself.
Growth was slow. For several years Columbia Sportswear subsisted by selling its designs to other companies, such as Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean. Then, as Tim Boyle explained to CNN/Money, the breakthrough came when he realized ‘‘that brands are really all you have to sell, and products are just extensions of the brand.’’ With that thought in mind Columbia Sportswear set out to redefine their image.
By 1983 executives from Columbia, along with representatives from Borders Perrin Norrander, decided the company needed to distinguish itself from the competition. ‘‘Back in 1983,’’ Gert told a writer for Inc. Magazine, ‘‘our advertising was about how our products weren’t just manufactured, they were engineered. The trouble was, everybody else in our industry was advertising the same way. So our advertising agency asked us, ‘What’s different about Columbia Sportswear?’ ’’ The answer was Gert Boyle. Not everyone, however, was convinced that the self-described ‘‘little old lady’’ could win the brand loyalty of hard-core sportsmen and athletes. They gave it a shot anyhow. The first ad read, ‘‘Before it passes Mother Nature, it has to pass Mother Boyle.’’ A campaign was born.

The campaign targeted sports aficionados. Columbia’s print ads ran predominantly in sports-themed magazines, such as Outdoors, Hiking, Backpacker, and Sports Illustrated, and many of its television spots ran on niche cable channels, including ESPN, MTV, and Comedy Central. Though Columbia Sportswear products were readily available at high-end sports retailers, such as REI and Cabela’s, they were often also available at many department stores and even in the company’s own flagship stores in Portland, Oregon; London, England; and Paris, France. Indeed the ‘‘Mother Boyle’’ campaign proved to have international appeal. Gert Boyle told a reporter for CNN/Money that the campaign was well received in Australia. ‘‘They have the same sense of humor as we do. You know, they all have mothers.’’ Apart from targeting those interested in sports, the ‘‘Mother Boyle’’ campaign appealed to people who lived and worked in cold climates and relied on quality outerwear to get them through long, frigid winters. By emphasizing durability over style, the advertising zeroed in on those who valued a reasonably priced product that served its purpose season after season. With casual dress becoming the standard in almost every sector of the population, Columbia’s advertising capitalized on the middle-class consumer who was driven more by comfort and price than style.

In 2002 Borders Perrin Norrander, Columbia Sportswear’s longtime advertising agency, launched a print ad for the company’s Jr. Fire Ridge Parka, a winter coat for children. The ad’s copy offered the first of two major guffaws: ‘‘You can freeze your sperm. You can freeze your embryos. But last we checked it was still illegal to freeze your children.’’ Mother Boyle piped in at the bottom: ‘‘Early signs of hypothermia include poor coordination and confusion. Two things best saved for puberty.’’

In terms of sportswear, Columbia’s closest competitors were Timberland and North Face, although it also competed with the apparel divisions of Reebok and Nike. Timberland’s print and television advertising, including its catchphrase ‘‘Make It Better,’’ focused on the durability of the company’s products and featured the same rugged outdoor terrain that could be found in Columbia’s advertising. The message was similar to Columbia’s ‘‘Mother Boyle’’ ads, minus the humor and the indelible image of a no-holds-barred woman running the show.
North Face, a high-performance outerwear manufacturer, offered expensive items that attempted to keep pace with fashion trends, a strategy eschewed by Columbia. Part of Gert Boyle’s appeal was her dedication to practicality over style, as evidenced by the fact that the design of Columbia’s Bugaboo jacket never changed in more than 17 years of production. North Face, by comparison, focused its advertising around the stars of ‘‘extreme’’ sports, such as Alpine mountain climbing, and marketed its product as a ‘‘prestige’’ brand, as opposed to Columbia’s dedication to its practicality, durability, and functionality. This made North Face more vulnerable to the finicky marketplace, as the company found out in the 1990s when its sales plummeted.
‘‘Everybody else’s ads in the outdoor-clothing business are the same,’’ Gert Boyle told Inc. Magazine. ‘‘There’s always a young, firm body. Sometimes, with a little luck, there are two firm bodies intertwined with each other . . . But if you put your finger over the name of the people who are advertising, you couldn’t tell whose ad it is. Well, ours are different.’’

Gert Boyle credited the originality of the ‘‘Mother Boyle’’ campaign for Columbia’s success. ‘‘You can look at nine-tenths of the manufacturers of outerwear, skiwear, anything like that—they’re all the same ads. All these gorgeous people who couldn’t possibly do on skis what they’re supposed to be doing. Then you’ve got the little old lady. That’s what sets us apart. Not because we make better clothing, but because the advertising gets your attention,’’ she told David Whitford of Fortune Small Business.
As Paul Swangard of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center told Bryan Brumley of the Associated Press, corporate success ‘‘starts with leadership. And it starts with the company defining its brand through its ownership. Gert has been synonymous with the identity that one equates with Columbia.’’ As the public face of Columbia, Boyle was an anomaly. ‘‘If you see any ad of an outdoor company, you see beautiful young people. What makes Columbia different—there is this little old lady,’’ she told a reporter for the Financial Times. Yet her high profile was more than just vanity. Jack Peterson, of Borders Perrin Norrander, told a writer for Adweek that she also ‘‘embodies everything the brand is about—uncompromising quality, toughness.’’
In addition to toughness, the ‘‘Mother Boyle’’ ads occasionally employed ribald language that was unusual for the normally staid field of outerwear. ‘‘There’s nothing motherly about mother nature,’’ read the headline of a 2002 ad for Columbia’s Boundary Peak Parka. ‘‘Except maybe her big mountainous breasts.’’ Below that, Gert Boyle piped up, ‘‘I’ve got hot flashes to keep me warm. You’ll need something that zips.’’ For an industry typically consumed with testosterone-influenced machismo, this female-centric viewpoint was bold and funny. Peterson told Adweek that despite the controversial nature of the ads’ text, research revealed 97 percent approval ratings for the campaign. The controversy also helped differentiate Columbia from marketing behemoths such as Nike. ‘‘It’s always been a Columbia trademark to be a sharper nail rather than a heavier hammer,’’ Peterson said.
The company’s television spots for 2005 featured two new ‘‘Mother Boyle’’ ads. In one Gert Boyle operated a cement mixer, which excreted an assortment of odd objects down its trough. The last object was Tim Boyle, wearing a pristine Columbia parka. In the ‘‘Dart’’ spot Tim addressed a group of business associates in a conference room during a meeting. Mother Boyle took aim from the hallway and blew a dart into his neck. The next shot revealed Tim abandoned in a vast snowy wilderness as his mother departed in a helicopter.
Beyond Gert Boyle’s charisma, the ‘‘Mother Boyle’’ television spots worked because of the dynamic between her and her son. Not many corporate CEOs would agree to be the punch line of a joke, but Tim Boyle was philosophical about it. ‘‘It’s very effective, so I guess I have to suck it up,’’ he told a reporter for CNN/Money.

In 2005 Gert Boyle published her autobiography, One Tough Mother: Success in Life, Business, and Apple Pies. The book’s cover showed Boyle brandishing the ‘‘Born to Nag’’ tattoo featured in early ads for Columbia’s ‘‘Mother Boyle’’ campaign.

Over the years the ‘‘Mother Boyle’’ campaign not only increased Columbia Sportswear’s sales but it also earned respect in the advertising business. Three of the ads were shortlisted for Clio Awards: 1998’s print ad ‘‘Three Reasons to Own a Good Pair of Boots,’’ 1998’s ‘‘When You Are as Old as the Hills,’’ and 2001’s television spot ‘‘Sled Dogs.’’
Anchored by the ‘‘Mother Boyle’’ campaign, the company showed earnings in 2000 that had increased 70 percent over the previous year, with revenues surpassing $600 million. By 2005 sales had reached $1 billion.
As Gert Boyle entered her 80s (in 2004), she left the company’s daily business to her son but continued to star in television spots and retained her position as chairman of the board, with no plans to retire. As she wrote in Fortune Small Business, ‘‘They asked Tim once, ‘What’s going to happen to the ad when your mother dies?’ He said, ‘We’ll have her stuffed.’’’

No comments: