Masters in Business
How the Boyles fueled Columbia Sportswear's growth by starring in their own ads

You may have seen Tim Boyle hanging off a cliff, harnessed only by a Columbia Sportswear jacket. Or perhaps you've seen his 74-year-old mother, Gert Boyle, flexing a bicep tattooed "Born to Nag." Thanks to television and print ads that star the CEO and the chairwoman, respectively, of Columbia Sportswear Co., the business has become a household name. But just 14 years ago, the outdoor-clothing manufacturer was a little-known $13-million business.

Columbia's roots go back even farther--to 1938, when Gert Boyle's father, Paul Lamfrom, bought what was originally just a hat company in Oregon. After Gert's husband, who had been running the company, died, she and son Tim grew the business in quiet anonymity until 1984. Then the company's advertising agency, Borders, Perrin & Norrander, in Portland, Oreg., persuaded the pair to star in their own ads. That move, coupled with new-product introductions, set Columbia Sportswear on the fast-growth track. By positioning Gert Boyle as "one tough mother," a taskmaster who forces Tim to jump through outrageous hoops to test the clothing's quality, Columbia Sportswear has gained international prominence. The company reports that after the campaign's launch, sales grew from $13 million in 1984 to $358 million in 1997. Inc. staff writer Stephanie Gruner interviewed the Boyles at their Portland headquarters to learn the secrets of a successful ad campaign.

Inc.: How did your "Tough Mother" campaign come about?

Gert Boyle: Back in 1983, 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?" We said, "Well, there's this little old lady running the business." (I wasn't so old then, but I've always been little.) We decided to see if it worked to use me in the ads, because that certainly would be different. People were skeptical; they said that hunters and sportsmen didn't want to listen to some little old lady telling them how to dress. But we did it anyway. Our first ad said, "Before it passes Mother Nature, it has to pass Mother Boyle." And it worked. So we just kept going--and the ads became a little bit more outrageous as we went along.

Inc.: Why do you think your ads have been so successful?

Gert Boyle: Everybody else's ads in the outdoor-clothing business are the same. There's always a young, firm body. Sometimes, with a little luck, there are two firm bodies intertwined with each other. And you could never do on skis what they say you can do on skis. 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.

You have to get people's attention; you have to be different. You can have the best stuff in the world--but if the ultimate consumer does not go into the store and ask for your brand, you've got nothing. People remember our ads.

Tim Boyle: The key thing in marketing is to differentiate yourself. If you offer a great service and great pricing the way all your competitors do, you shouldn't forget those things in your ads--but those aren't the things that make people remember you. If you're the same as everybody else, who cares?

Inc.: When you started your campaign, your company was still fairly small. What advice would you give to small companies about getting the most out of a limited advertising budget?

Gert Boyle: Put your own face on there. That way you don't have to pay somebody else.

Tim Boyle: You have to constantly challenge yourself or your agency, asking, "Why are we spending this money? Why is this message better than another one?" Also, early on, when our budget was smaller, we picked very specialized publications. We could afford them, and we knew that everyone who read those publications was interested in our products.

Inc.: Gert, how do you feel about parodying yourself as a "tough mother" in your ads?

Gert Boyle: Oh, I don't mind. If a company has something that's different enough about it that it's going to help you increase sales and, eventually, make you money, my thinking is, Why not use it? Making money is what I'm in business for.

To be honest, I never thought the ads would be as popular as they are. We even have people copying us. I understand that my "tough mother" tattoo--the one that says "Born to Nag"--is in a tattoo catalog.

Inc.: What about company owners who aren't such natural hams?

Gert Boyle: I think what you want to express to people is that you're human. Think about when you go to the electric company. You never talk to a human being. You always talk to a machine. And if the company gives you change, it comes out of another little machine. I feel that people relate to us because there's a person here who really cares--and I do care.

Inc.: But you see a lot of local businesspeople who star in their own ads--and the results are pretty tacky.

Gert Boyle: You remember a bad meal more than a good meal, right? You have to be different--ads that are different are remembered. We have a car dealer here in town. He's a little short guy. But because he stars in his own ads, everybody around here knows his company.

Listen, I've had a lot of letters. You wouldn't believe how many people read ads and then write you.

Inc.: Do you hear from people, Tim?

Tim Boyle: Nobody cares about me.