L.L.Bean's Second Century
At one hundred, the retail giant reinvents itself with a careful eye on the past.
- By: Sara Anne Donnelly
In his book L.L.Bean: The Making of an American Icon, former company president Leon Gorman describes the rapid evolution of Freeport retailer L.L.Bean after the death of his grandfather, the dogmatic and notoriously change-averse Leon Leonwood Bean, whose name and personality were legendarily synonymous with his business. By the time L.L. died in 1967, the company had enjoyed decades of success since its 1912 founding. But it had never grown at the pace it now faced — the company doubled in size three times between 1967 and the late 1970s. “I’ve been told that doubling the size of a business amounts to reinventing it,” Gorman wrote. As he led the charge on everything from management accountability to adding stock numbers to the catalog, Gorman worried that each innovation chipped away at the valuable mystique of this old-fashioned business run by an old-fashioned man. In the late 1970s an outdoors writer and long-time Bean fan visited the new company. What he found was both a surprise and a relief. “Everything,” the reporter wrote, “is almost exactly like L.L. left it.” Gorman had debuted the magic trick the company must every year execute anew — change L.L.Bean as times demand without sacrificing its unchangeable legend. Just how the company — the state’s fifth largest private employer, according to the Maine Department of Labor — does that is the key to its relevance in the next hundred years.
Last December, X-Games superstar and two-time Olympic gold medalist Seth Wescott signed a three-year contract to be L.L.Bean’s “winter sports ambassador.” Wescott will help modernize the company’s outdoor skiwear and wear it in competition up and down the world’s most extreme peaks. About a month before the relationship was inked, L.L.Bean had given Wescott a jacket and pants from its rugged Ascent outerwear line to test while hiking and skiing on the Antarctic Peninsula. Wescott found weaknesses that would aggravate professionals. A crampon punctured one of the pant legs and the gaiters were too loose around the ankle. Before he’d even left on the expedition, Wescott had asked the company to add a powder skirt to the jacket to block snow kicked up during skiing and snowboarding. It’s design oversights like these that Wescott thinks have kept L.L.Bean from being a bigger player in professional sports alongside rivals like Eddie Bauer, the North Face, and Patagonia.
“A big part of why I wanted to work with them was to help them become more relevant in the winter sports world,” says Wescott from his home in Carrabassett Valley. “If you look at the designs of what they have out there for ski gear and snowboard gear, [Bean] is pretty dated right now. A lot of the [professional winter sports] guys grew up in New England, and they’re glad the company is finally trying to follow through on their winter gear.”
Wescott’s modern version of a Bean sportsman is exactly the authentic brand update the company may need. The heyday of the printed catalog, after all, appears to have passed — according to the Wall Street Journal, catalog companies like L.L.Bean have struggled to attract attention from consumers in their twenties and thirties, that next-generation so coveted by retailers. A 2009 survey from Mintel International found younger people rarely shop by catalog. Of those who do, only 8 percent of eighteen to twenty-four year olds had ordered something from L.L.Bean, and just 10 percent of twenty-five to thirty-four year olds had.
And the recession didn’t exempt Maine’s iconic business — in 2008, sales dropped 7.8 percent, only the third decline since 1960, and L.L.Bean was left after the holidays with piles of inventory it couldn’t move. The following year was also difficult — a 6.6 percent decline, employee buyouts, about two dozen laid off. In response, the company amped up its online presence, opened its first stores in China (as of 2011, there were sixty-two), and launched the trendy clothing L.L.Bean Signature line, in 2010.
A hunger for heritage fashion has propelled some recent good news — college students are buying the Bean Boot in record numbers. The company sold nearly 400,000 pairs in 2011, up from 150,000 four years ago, and hired 125 people at its boot factory in Brunswick to keep up with the demand. In March, the company reported revenues of $1.52 billion in fiscal year 2011, an increase of 5.5 percent, according to the Associated Press. Pre-recession levels were $1.6 billion.
“L.L.Bean has a certain challenge, which is not unique among iconic brands,” says brand consultant and University of Maine Executive-in-Residence Paul Myer, who has helped update historic brands like Jack Daniel’s liquor. “People know the brand L.L.Bean, it’s been able to capture the essence of what Maine is. So how does it not lose any of that but still be able to focus on new customers? And how can it grow its market?”
How does Bean grow? The answer might have made L.L. grimace: by strutting down the catwalk.
New York fashion blogger Kelly Framel, a pixieish GenXer who goes by the alias “The Glamourai,” perches inside a studio effusing about L.L.Bean fashion in a February YouTube ad for the spring 2012 collection of the Signature line, L.L.Bean’s foray into high fashion. “Today we take these perfect, sportswear, American basics and kind of turn them upside down a little bit,” she says, black-tinted fingernails waving. The ensuing clip is like a spastic music video for lawn-party knits — pouty models shift and preen in pastels and madras to driving electronica while the camera frantically cuts and zooms. This L.L.Bean is a far cry from the company whose sales floor once echoed with L.L.’s booming dismissal of new products that were too expensive or flashy, or that he had not personally tested.
“The further and further you push out of your vision of what you are, the brand suffers a little bit,” says brand strategist Adriana Estrada. “But L.L.Bean is doing it right. They’ve looked at who is their core customer and looked at her life beyond the weekend. What else do these people do?”
The Signature line, launched in 2010, features variations on L.L.Bean’s core styles, cut for a slimmer, more urban customer. The man the company chose to handle the task was hipster superstar and former Abercrombie & Fitch designer Alex Carleton. Carleton’s Portland-based clothier Rogues Gallery had built an international reputation for its attractively distressed models in equally distressed sixty-five-dollar T-shirts. As the country turned the corner into recession, Carleton’s Made-in-Maine men’s and women’s clothing line became iconic Americana fashion, otherwise known as new heritage fashion, blue-collar chic, or sportsman style. Carleton was also something of a known quantity to L.L.Bean, having worked for it as a designer earlier in his career. And Carleton’s high-fashion celebrity was a nice bonus.
“We were looking for someone who understood that customer and that apparel,” says former L.L.Bean Vice President of Merchandising Chris Vickers of the urban consumer. “We needed to find the right person, someone who could find influence from who L.L.Bean was. We also wanted to bring in someone who had an understanding of the outside market.”
Signature’s 2009 launch party included a runway show in a gallery in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen that was reportedly attended by some of fashion’s top editors and celebrity guests like TV personality Anderson Cooper. The line competes with similar urban updates of historic American brands like Woolrich and Pendleton and with J. Crew and Ralph Lauren’s Rugby line. “The idea,” Carleton told the Boston Globe the day after the gala, “is that this is the next generation of L.L.Bean customer.”
“Certainly, [Carleton’s] credibility separate from L.L.Bean was helpful in the launch of Signature in gaining attention from the more fashion-focused circles and media outlets,” wrote L.L.Bean Creative Senior Vice President Don Oakes in an email. “But the line is not all about the latest fashion. It is rather designed to remain authentic L.L.Bean, with staying power long after the trend moves on.”
Nick Sullivan, fashion director at Esquire magazine, says L.L.Bean’s Signature line cleverly manages to be both updated and “retro-dated.” “An older brand, if they stick to their guns and have confidence in themselves, they have some resonance with people,” says Sullivan.
Off the runway, L.L.Bean Chief Marketing Officer Fuller is creative with the brand in a different way; his efforts of late — including the Wescott deal — highlight L.L.Bean’s playfulness. In 2009, the year before the Signature line was launched, the company partnered with Blue Ox Technologies Ltd. of Caribou to launch its first mobile game — a free downloadable mind bender called “Moosentration” that over the next eighteen months generated eight million minutes of game play. The company has increased its presence on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, where it now responds to customer complaints and posts ads. Last year its mobile app was upgraded to allow purchases, facilitating some $750 million in sales that Fuller says the Internet now generates, or about half of the company’s total annual revenue. Then there’s the thirteen-foot “Bootmobile,” a size 747 hunting boot built over a Ford F250, that in January was taken for a spin on CNNMoney. There’s also the Maine-based Gifford’s Ice Cream’s new “Muddy Bean Boots” flavor (vanilla ice cream with brownie bits and caramel) and, if you’re unfortunate enough to be rained out of a Sox game at Fenway Park next season, make sure to pause on your way out and admire the L.L.Bean hundredth-anniversary rain tarp the grounds crew stretches across the diamond.
“I live in fear of L.L.Bean becoming just another retailer,” says Fuller. “You want something that’s different, that’s consistent with your personality, but doesn’t just live in the past. So you do things that are fun.”
Now that’s a tradition L.L. would certainly approve of.
- By: Sara Anne Donnelly