Columbia CEO spent $80k on WaPo ad because 'cavemen in D.C. don't use social media'

The retailer's chief Tim Boyle on why he is blasting the government shutdown.

Tim Boyle
Tim Boyle

PORTLAND, OR: Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle blasted the government shutdown in a full-page Washington Post ad on Friday – a move he sees no downside to.  

"The reaction has been virtually 100% positive," he says. "It’s hard to be against parks."

In the January 11 ad, which marked day 21 of the shutdown, Boyle decried the politics that closed the country’s national parks. His message: "Make America’s parks open again."

When asked why Columbia Sportswear would spend $80,000 on a newspaper ad, Boyle’s answer is direct: "Some of the cavemen in Washington don’t use social media," he says, adding the effort was done internally.

Boyle doesn’t mince his words when it comes to the government shutdown.

"We’re talking about various issues with the current administration for many, many years," he says. "This is a specific attack against our business."

Columbia Sportswear’s move comes after years of Boyle assailing the anti-immigration policies pushed by President Donald Trump. In a November 2018 interview with the Financial Times, he labelled Trump’s policies a "travesty." As the son of a Jewish refugee that fled Nazi Germany, the matter is personal for Boyle. But speaking on behalf of a company with a global supply chain and with 40% sales that come from outside the U.S., it’s also a professional dispute.

After the Democrats and Trump locked horns over $5.7 billion in funding to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, Boyle says he was compelled to speak out.

"The 40% of our business that’s outside the U.S. is really a reflection of the American outdoor lifestyle [and] Americana and the fact the stuff works really well," Boyle says. "When the national parks close, it impacts not only our U.S. business but our international business as well. We felt it was important for us to say something."

Columbia draws from the country’s rich heritage of national parks and Americana to market its products. A shutdown diminishes the power of that heritage. Without funding, the parks are closed to the public and waste that continues to build up is damaging their "pristine" beauty, he adds.

"We want to make sure the parks are open, accessible, and protected," Boyle says.

Tensions between the federal government and Columbia have soured since the Trump administration started levying tariffs on Chinese goods.

The New York Times profiled Columbia’s "tariff engineering" efforts to "adjust its products to lessen import taxes on materials from outside the U.S.," but the trade dispute has made that strategy more difficult.

"We typically try to encourage good activity and so this is just an opportunity to encourage our legislative body to do the right thing," Boyle says.

Boyle expresses dismay at the political climate, not only in the U.S., but globally.

"Exposure to cultures that are not your own helps broaden you as an individual, simply put," Boyle says. "Frankly, business is a great promoter, a great way to encourage that kind of interaction with individuals. It’s a rewarding experience for anyone to take advantage of that. In the U.S., you see that in spades."

Today’s heightened political atmosphere has forced corporations to reconsider how they tread around sensitive issues. While some company’s strike a bold tone, such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, which introduced a new policy around the sale of firearms, others are more reluctant to enter the fray.

"I don’t know why others don’t say something," Boyle says. "Maybe they’re afraid consumers will react negatively. When we discuss internally, we talk about the negatives. Someone might be upset, but we might have to take risk."

But Columbia’s fearlessness could be a result of its strong financial position. The company posted "record" growth in Q3 with net sales increasing 6% to $795.8 million and operating income up 5% to $129.1 million.

Despite its lamentations over the China trade war, Boyle says business is "quite good."

"Much of it relies on our ability to navigate the trade barriers that have been established in the U.S. but exist globally," he says. "We’re rewarded because many places in the world look to U.S. as a place where freedom is encouraged and expected, and people like to reflect that kind of lifestyle in the apparel they wear."

In SEC filings Boyle alludes to, the company states its success relies on its distribution facilities and third-party logistics companies.

However, the fallout of Trump’s tariffs continues to mushroom. Earlier this month, Apple cut its guidance and sent the markets into a spiral as investors braced for a slowing Chinese economy.

For Columbia, the issue is twofold. Its products, shipped not only to the U.S. but markets worldwide, rely on Chinese manufacturing. Also, the company operates a significant business in-country after it acquired the remaining 40% stake of a joint venture with Swire Resources Limited.

"Our business is built on trade," Boyle says. "It’s reflective of the company’s history and identity as an American company. We believe it’s detrimental not only for us but our employees and for America. If others are impacted, they should say something. Others do, but some don’t."

Columbia, which works with McCann for marketing duties across creative, media, and PR, is also doubling down on driving brand awareness. Citing regulatory constraints around earnings, Boyle says he won’t able to talk about any upcoming activations, except that Columbia has campaigns that run throughout the year.

The bulk of sales still comes from wholesale, but it’s growing its direct-to-consumer approach, Boyle says.

"The more we can interact directly with consumers, the better, and the better our connection with them will be emotionally," says Boyle.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in