gert-280-75Would you trade your wedding ring for an exact replica?

It’s a question I sometimes ask audiences.  Not surprisingly, hardly anyone admits to indifference in the matter.

More commonly, the emotional attachment measures in the thousands of dollars, which is what most people say they’d need to be paid before swapping the ring they were married in for a perfect replica.

Dismiss this as mere sentimentality at your own peril.

The man (or woman) who admits to NOT valuing his original wedding ring over a replica gets shunned. The same thing happens to the man who would willingly wear the clothing of a serial killer. Most of us would refuse to don Jeffrey Dahmers cap, even if it had been previously washed and sanitized. No matter how unscientific, arational, and even “silly” our repulsion is – regardless of how much it represents “Magical Thinking”  –  you’ll still find that:

  • The vast majority of people won’t willingly wear a piece of clothing worn by an evil man, and
  • Those who WOULD wear Dahmer’s clothing deeply offend our sensibilities and provoke our immediate distrust.  They creep us out.

What does all that tell you?

Shared values run deeper than rationality. Way deeper. As Richard Weaver writes, “…logic depends upon the dream, and not the dream upon it.  We must admit this when we realize that logical processes rest ultimately upon classification, that classification is by identification, and identification is intuitive.”

We identify objects as tainted or sacred at an intuitive, emotional level. At a place were our reasoning is powerless to touch.  A place where the principles of magical thinking reign supreme over the laws of science. At the very place where we make our buying decisions.

And for marketers, that means 2 things:

  1. You can’t expect a rational explanation to communicate a shared value that’s held at that intuitive, emotional level.
  2. You’d better understand the rule sets behind the “magical thinking” that our emotional and lizard brains engage in if you hope to move beyond mere rational explanations in your advertising

Case In Point: Columbia Sportswear’s Tough Mother

First, some background on Columbia Sportswear’s former CEO and now Chairman of the Board, as taken from the inside flap of her book:

“When a heart attack claimed Gert Boyle’s husband in 1970, the forty-six-year-old housewife and mother of three found herself at the helm of Columbia Sportswear, a small outerwear manufacturer in Portland, Oregon, that was struggling financially. With no business experience whatsoever, Boyle was faced with the challenge of running Columbia, which had been founded in 1937 by her father — a Jewish immigrant who had fled Hitler’s Germany. Boyle and her son Tim persevered, turning a company that in 1970 had forty employees and less than $800,000 in annual sales into the leading seller of skiwear in the United States, with more than 2000 employees and over a billion in annual sales…”

One of the turning points on this incredible success story was (surprise!) a change in advertising messaging.

Prior to the Borders Perrin & Norrander marketing campaign that billed Columbia’s CEO, Gert Boyle, as “one tough mother,” Columbia’s ads emphasized how their sportswear wasn’t just designed, it was “engineered.”


A perfectly rational approach to building value for the product that failed in the marketplace.  Customers may rationally compare spec sheets and engineering functionality, but they identify quality and an affinity for an object at a much deeper, emotional level. And they buy at these deeper, emotional – and, yes, magical – elements.

What Columbia needed was to convey their passion for no-nonsense product design in a way that “worked,” and to convey that message through the laws of magical thinking.  They needed messaging that took advantage of our notions that blood is thicker than water, that essences really exist, that shared values take place at more profound level than “good business practices” and engineering labs.

Fortunately for Columbia, their next, legendary ad campaign did exactly that by focusing on Gert Boyle’s “Tough Mother” approach to product design, and by expressing that approach through the mother-son relationship that existed between Columbia’s CEO and its President.  Here’s how that looked:




2010-05-26_1142People saw those ads and believed.  They believed that Gert really cared, fervently and violently, about the products her company manufactured. They believed her interest in building clothing that protected the wearer went way deeper than just normal, rational business desires to “engineer” a better product.

As Ma Boyle puts it:

“The impact of the ads was almost instantaneous. Sales quickly increased and I was surprised when strangers came up to me on the street and asked if I was the ‘tough mother.’ Better yet, the image created by the advertisements took hold.  Instead of seeing us as just another outerwear company, our customers thought of us as the company where the cranky and crotchety old broad made sure that they were getting a good product at a fair price.  The bottom line was that what we were really expressing was that we were human… People relate 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 do care.”

After seeing the commercials, customers liked Columbia better.  Their affinity for Gert rubbed off (the phrase is telling, is it not?) onto the products.  And sales soared, leading to one of the clearest success stories from a national “image-based” campaign since the Marlboro Man.

What about you?

What are you irrationally committed to?  What values do you cling to even when it costs you – even when it makes no business sense at all?

Does your advertising even mention them?

And are you communicating those values rationally or magically?

P.S. If you really want to be inspired, check out some of Columbia’s old TV Ads.  I’ve always liked the one with the zamboni, myself ; )


  1. JaimeAnn Laidlaw on 05.26.2010

    First I need to say I love the design of your site! But more importantly I almost forgot about the impact those ads had on me as a “consumer”. They are brilliant! Thank you for taking the time to talk about them and point out their strengths!
    .-= JaimeAnn Laidlaw´s last blog ..Copywriting: The Whole Enchilada – Changing the Recipe =-.

  2. Phil Wrzesinski on 05.26.2010

    Jeff, how timely. Thanks for such a great post. I just finished cutting a radio ad talking about how people think I’m crazy for overstaffing my store so much (over twice as many staff on hand as stores twice our size) – and feeding them ice cream at 8:30am. There is no such thing as caring too much about your customers.

  3. Lorraine on 05.27.2010

    Another brilliant post.

    We all know people buy for emotional reasons. Facts, figures, features and, to a great extent, benefits, help customers rationalize the buying decision and solidify the sale.

    But this post confirms something percolating with me: Focus groups, research, analytics and testing are crucial, but the intuition of creatives–writers, designers, etc.–plays a huge role in developing the emotional hook.

    Columbia could have taken any number of emotion-laden paths. But a creative team chose the Tough Mother concept. And it’s perfect.
    .-= Lorraine´s last blog ..Once Upon a Time Small Business Didn’t Need Social Media =-.

  4. Dave Doolin on 05.28.2010

    I know one person for sure who would fit very well into an advertising campaign like this. Almost a drop in (with the copy rewritten of course).

    And I can’t believe I’ve never seen this one before!

    Really, an outstanding series of ads.
    .-= Dave Doolin´s last blog ..Blogging from a Tropical Island Paradise… with Wireless! (Bert Padilla drops in from Cebu) =-.

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