Columbia Sportswear Company

Author:Kathy Peacock

Page 359

14375 NW Science Park Drive

Portland, Oregon 97229-5418


Telephone: (800) 547-8066

Fax: (503) 985-5960

Web site:


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, Portland-based 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.

Page 360

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...

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