In our category “Famous Last Words” we usually deal with very simple questions. Today we lift the bar a little higher by submitting a riddle to our readers: “What is marketing?”

The good and the bad thing about marketing is that it is sort of a black box that contains an enigmatic mixture of many ingredients. Those ingredients are basically stories that come from new products, new managers and new distribution channels.

Some of those stories are real and serious, some are made up and some of them are an intelligent hybrid of truth and fiction. That’s business.

At all the companies in the industry, marketing people are very busy creating and spreading new stories. Some of them do a great job, others do not. At times, however, the story-telling is overrun by reality.

Reality is sometimes a force that is so much stronger than any marketing plan. Columbia Sportswear, for instance, had a big marketing agenda to meet in the first half of November when the company called retailers and journalists to New York City and Geneva to have its showcase there. Manhattan was the appropriate place to tell the world that Columbia is big.

The meeting in Europe was held in Geneva at CERN, the European center for nuclear research. The Swiss site was skillfully selected to demonstrate that Columbia was a technical company because at CERN the Big Bang is simulated in a laboratory environment.

This looked like a plan, and the plan was perfectly executed. Reality, however, took place simultaneously far away from Geneva in Portland, Oregon, where GertrudeMaBoyle, chairwoman of Columbia, was robbed in her own house.

Reportedly, the robber bound her hands, but released her when she convinced the thief that she had to disable the alarm in her house. She took advantage of this by pressing a silent panic button that brought the police to the scene to arrest the criminal.

All that is not a joke, because we can imagine that Ma’s house was not a comfortable place to be for the 86-year-old outdoor industry veteran during the invasion. Thankfully, that all worked out fine.

Still, it should be pointed out that reality is so much stronger than marketing – even though real life can be a good deal slower than campaigning: Gert Boyle has been often used by Columbia to advertise and to shape the image of a senior executive who is just tougher than the universe.

This came after her own book titled One Tough Mother and a controversial advertising campaign featuring Boyle as the stiff chief of the whole enterprise. The whole campaign went even so far as to highlight the chairwoman as a mother giving good ass-kickings to her son and chief executive, Tim Boyle, who proved again his great sense of humor and self-irony in those American TV spots.

Marketing produced by real life does not come to an end at this point: Reportedly, the detective in charge of investigations on the Boyle case entered the site wearing a jacket from The North Face. It is said that Ma Boyle replied to questions like “How are you doing?” by stating: “Fine, until that jacket walked through the door.” Tough Mother’s message was: One’s own state of health is a minor concern when competition is tough.

The whole story may sound like a fairy tale. It is too good to be created by marketing people who might throw it into Facebook. The lesson is: Real life produces far better stories than the labs in which sophisticated plots are developed.

The editor