This print ad from Backpacker Magazine is for socks from Columbia Sportswear Company. The ad is for Merino wool hiking socks. The ad features a picture of comfortable-looking socks with the line “Made From Virgin Wool. As Opposed To Socks Made From Sheep That Slept Around” Below this are four lines of text explaining the features of the sock as well as a red stamp bearing the words “Tested Tough” and the face and signature of Gert Boyle, one of the company owners.
Humor can be pointless or meaningful, but in this skillfully crafted ad from Columbia Sportswear, the humor establishes the tone for the brand. Columbia, a family run company that built its name by adopting Gore-Tex for sportswear earlier than competitors, is trying to maintain the feeling of a small business. This seems like a simple ad, but it is not. Here’s what works by the numbers:
- Context Sensitivity – Columbia serves several different audiences, from snowboarders to bikers and differentiating between them is critical for print advertising which must be highly targeted. Here the target is hikers and backpackers who are enthusiasts (enough to read a magazine devoted to backpacking). Columbia recognizes this context in two ways. First, the choice of color palate for this ad is soft and natural. The beige and greenish tones are great for this audience but would be totally inappropriate for snowboarders. Secondly, the product presentation is also geared to the audience. Skiers would want to see a ski jacket or ski pants looking new and shiny. Backpackers and hikers are much more geared to comfort. New socks would look uncomfortable and these folks would imagine the blisters that might ensue. So the product shot here shows a pair of socks that look like they have been washed and worn. Comfortable, in other words.
- Humor Pitched to the Audience – The virgin wool joke is a good one because it mimics what some people must think when they’re trying to figure out the difference between one product and another. The tonality of this joke fits well with the stern-looking stamped image of Gert Boyle and the casual shot of the socks.
- The Right Claim Support – Many ads in magazines sold to enthusiast audiences are dense with text and product information. The thinking is that these people want and need a high level of information about products they may purchase. While this may be true, Columbia is trying to create an attitude that is somewhat self-aware. We know we are nutty hikers and obsessed with gear – it says – but we can also be sensible. The backup text here gives enough information to get the consumer to the store to check out the socks without inundating her.
- Vesting Trust in the Entrepreneur - Family run companies are smart to create a trusted relationship with the entrepreneur. Putting a human face on a company gives the consumer a greater sense that someone is accountable for the quality of the product – as it did with Frank Perdue or Dave Thomas from Wendy’s. In this case, Columbia has built a nice image around “Ma Boyle” who looks just stern enough to make you trust her clothing.
Humor is a very tricky tool and sexual humor in particular can be dangerous. Hikers might be liberal and less inclined to take offense at this type of joke than others, but there is no guaranty that this ad might not offend an important subset of Columbia’s hiking audience. The Columbia marketing folks should be monitoring the customer complaint line very closely to see if there are any signs that this is happening.
Branding Bottom Line:
Columbia makes the sheep look good.