“Lotsa Luck”: LL Bean To Go Global, Shed Stodgy New England Image

With its first-ever CEO from outside the family, LL Bean has a plan to boost its flat sales and aging demographic: shed its stodgy New England image and become an international brand. That includes tripling ad spending (a cost that will surely be passed down to the consumer), ads that feature greater ethnic diversity.

The new CEO is named Steve Smith, and has previously worked stints at Sam’s Club and Walmart. Reports The Boston Globe:

Smith, an Amherst native and the first non-Bean family member to hold the position of chief executive, joined L.L. Bean in 2015 after stints at AT&T, Hannaford, and both Walmart and Sam’s Club, where he worked to expand their reach in China. Since taking the helm of L.L. Bean, Smith has sought to use his global perspective to widen the audience for the brand. That means more diverse faces in its new ad campaigns. And it means an increased push to stand out from competitors such as Land’s End and Eddie Bauer and the “contrived posers” that feign a familiarity with the great outdoors.

Further:

…. changes reflect the “end of the direct marketing model” and a shift of focus away from catalogues. The company is now tripling spending on advertising buys in print, radio, digital, and television in an effort to support retail in stores…. L.L. Bean’s new approach was developed with the Portland-based marketing firm VIA, Smith said. The ads are more playful and feature families of more diverse backgrounds than the staid catalogues of yore. In one short spot, a bunch of 20-something skinny dippers strip off their Bean gear on a dock before splashing into a lake. In another, an African-American dad who is vacuuming turns the nozzle on his kids when they come inside covered in leaves.

Now I’m as inclusive as a PITA (Preppy, Ivy, Trad, Americana) blogger can get, and I’m no businessman, but it seems like if you’re a heritage New England brand selling traditional goods and you’re having trouble attracting younger, middle-class suburban whites, I’m not the answer is courting the rather small suburban middle class black market. Of course that’s not the only strategy, but as the New York Times and New Republic have reported, use of national parks and “the great outdoors” is disproportionately small among minorities.

Some of you may remember the 2007 parody in The Onion “African American Boycott of LL Bean Enters 80th Year.” Check out the video at the top of the page here.

Best of luck to LL Bean, and I hope it is able to find a growing new customer base. Meanwhile, you’ve still got a few trads around who appreciate a well made classic.  — CC

65 Comments on "“Lotsa Luck”: LL Bean To Go Global, Shed Stodgy New England Image"

  1. Mountain Cat Prep | November 6, 2017 at 10:51 am |

    I saw the “Mudroom” ad on television last week and thought it was really charming! I’m glad Bean is trying to flex its muscles since the brand has such an unsung history in the fashion world at large. All the best for them!

    Speaking of ad pushes, I wonder what Brooks Brothers is going to do next year for its 200 year anniversary. Hopefully its incredible.

  2. Just got a copy of Brooks’ 200th anniversary book, out this week. I’ll post soon.

  3. So sad to see L.L. Bean shed its heritage of thrift and timeless classic goods. No doubt all that advertising will translate into higher prices and fewer products made in Maine and an off-shoring of jobs to China.

    First Brooks, then Lands End and now Bean. No wonder so many Americans have thrown in the towel and dress like slobs.

  4. Not sure what LLBean’s selling point will be if they move away from the “stodgy New England image”. There’s already a ton of mallcrap out there that’s shoddier but cheaper, and available to try on and buy on the spot.

  5. Vern Trotter | November 6, 2017 at 12:04 pm |

    The only thing ever really Ivy about Bean is their boots. Everything else is faux Ivy.
    Let their supposed new market have them.

  6. I’d guess it’s less a strategy to get middle class black customers and more a strategy to change the minds of younger white customers who regard the brand as being too conservative and too white.

  7. Len Longville | November 6, 2017 at 12:20 pm |

    “Faux ivy”?
    Most New Englanders I know buy almost everything they wear from LL Bean

  8. “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that and I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” – Tony Soprano

  9. It sounds like, based on his track record, this new Mr. Smith has at least one eye on China. I don’t know much about the retail business, but if you can get a billion Chinamen as interested in Bean Boots as you can American college girls, you’re committing malpractice by *not* going there.

    At the end of the video of the dad vacuuming his kids, there’s a link to a bunch of new Bean video adverts; one is called ‘Chasing the Sun’ and certainly looks contrived. But if that cute brunette is tough enough to drive an old Rover Mk 1 from Richmond to Freeport, she’s alright by me.

  10. So now LL Bean is just Eddie Bauer.

    Disclaimer. I’ve only bought dog and hunting gear from LL Bean.

  11. Miles Coverdale | November 6, 2017 at 3:42 pm |

    Almost 300,000 views on “Mudroom,” and only a total of 20 thumbs-up/down as of right now. Is Bean buying clicks?

  12. A Trad Confused | November 6, 2017 at 3:58 pm |

    Urban Trad Wear… the last frontier. Black people don’t want to dress like white folks… sorry. Also, Sam’s Club and Walmart? Basically some operational outsourcing guru. This should be fun to watch.

  13. Charlottesville | November 6, 2017 at 4:15 pm |

    Bean Boots and Norwegian sweater were standard issue in my teens/early 20s, as were the flap-pocket OCBDs, camp mocs, surcingle belts, and probably a dozen other items. Recently, I find less to interest me, although the quality seems good for the items I have bought. I will be surprised if this venture produces much new that appeals to me, but I obviously am not the audience they are seeking and I wish them well in appealing to younger customers wherever they can find them. Perhaps they will continue to offer a few of the classics and hopefully, they will maintain the quality, but I see the most likely outcome to be the deterioration that has plagued Brooks and Lands End.

  14. I have to chime in here again, if ever-so-narrowly: when our merry band sees an impending cliff for a particular brand’s quality/identity/etc., we almost automatically say, “Sigh … X Co. is going the way of Brooks …”. And that’s warranted in many ways. But I must report that those new, American-made, unlined OCBDs I bought from Brooks last year are climbing the ranks in my rotation. They’re laundering nicely, they feel great, they fit me well, etc. In this reader’s opinion, they’re doing one thing very well right now.

  15. That stodgy (I would say classic or reliable, but hey, that’s just me) New England image is what I have sought from L.L. Bean these past 36 years as a customer. Just as a precaution, I’m considering stocking up on everything Bean I might want, before the items are discontinued. I wish I’d been prescient enough and in a position to do that at Brooks Brothers before it was too late. And I wish I had bought more from the Lands End Charter Collection during the short time it existed.

    Stephen B, I think you’re right. Bean might attract a few middle class black customers, but the real strategy is probably to attract white Millennials by showing how diverse and “woke” L.L. Bean is.

  16. whiskeydent | November 6, 2017 at 4:35 pm |

    I think y’all are missing something about diversity. Urban millennial whites WANT to see diversity in advertising. They see it as a sign of a company’s values and the lack of it can become a red flag against a purchase. They will put their money where their values are. It’s what’s cool to them.

  17. Maybe L.L. can remember what happened to Eddie Bauer in the mid nineties when they abandoned their roots and went business casual. The changes bankrupted the parent company,speigel.I sense disaster,ala Claudio part two.

  18. jim dalessandro | November 6, 2017 at 4:45 pm |

    Been in this business for over 35 years. Seen flat front and pleats. Straight and bell bottoms. Wide lapels and narrow lapels. Traditional patters, some with new colorings and some pretty far out. All to reach a customer. But, a better job of encouraging the consumer that what you have it what they want and need takes knowledge patience and great marketing. Ralph Lauren created a lifestyle that you wanted. Whe he veered of course, Black Label, University Club, Chaps, he lost his course. I understand the company is going to go from 25 labels to three. Back to the basics. He always used to say you will want what I have. As for LL Bean, diversity, younger is all great. But let them want what and who you are. You get nowhere chasing your tail.

  19. Might I say that, as a millennial, they type of people who care about social justice causes (such as diversity in advertising) aren’t the same type to shop at LL Bean. The audience and it’s advertising/media preferences are self-selecting. By and large – people who care that much about diversity in ads shop at brands with overt social/political agendas – or at least enough of an agenda for a consumer to believe that he or she is supporting something greater by purchasing from that brand.

    LL Bean is purposefully shedding any heritage claim to “authenticity” or hipness in favor of becoming the every man’s Filson/REI/Orvis. I predict a swift decline in the US market – perhaps they will fair better in eastern markets à la J.Press.

  20. FrontPorchLife | November 6, 2017 at 5:36 pm |

    Is this the same Steve Smith from the Red Green Show? I guess he knows a thing or two about flannels at least. Just don’t take advice from that Harold.

  21. whiskeydent, you’re right about white guilt ridden millennials wanting diversity in their ads but, as stated above, they are not usually the ones to shop at Bean’s. Minorities are also in the minority when it comes to shopping at Bean’s, this is common knowledge, which is why targeting them is futile. I’m sure the company’s executives know this and are just using these minorities, as though they were tokens, in their ads to appeal to those guilty-feeling whites, which is absolutely shameful.

    L.L. Bean has been on the downswing for quite awhile but this just might be the final nail in the coffin.

  22. john carlos | November 6, 2017 at 7:19 pm |

    @Paul I couldn’t agree with you more regarding BB’s American made unlined OCBD’S. I’ve purchased a dozen or so over the last year. Quality fabric, good roll, and great fit.

  23. What I know about retail is zilch but it seems to me that great brands tend to become great organically, though the perceived value and quality of their products, not by hiring Wal-Mart executives. This move has the faint odor of Ron Johnson / J.C. Penney about it and that didn’t go too well. For the record, there are Bean flannel sheets on my bed right now, and a pair of their boots in my closet awaiting rain, but I sure don’t peruse the website for clothing.

  24. Most studies conclude that it costs between 4 and 10 times as much to gain a new customer as to keep an existing one.

    But hey roll the dice!

  25. Interesting. Sounds like the tripled ad budget should be quadrupled at least.

  26. Predicting a relatively brief tenure for this new CEO, following the steady parade of “savior” outsiders brought in to “reinvent” brands such as RL, Land’s End, and so, so many others.

  27. L.L. Bean stopped being a New England brand a long time ago. Go to any college campus and see who’s wearing it. The same people who wear vineyard vines, southern tide, pocket tees, chubbies, etc. head to toe. It’s a frat/sorority house brand now. Bean boots on everyone’s feet and a half-zip fleece pull-over on everyone’s torso.

  28. JDD writes: “By and large – people who care that much about diversity in ads shop at brands with overt social/political agendas – or at least enough of an agenda for a consumer to believe that he or she is supporting something greater by purchasing from that brand.”

    Sounds like a working definition of “virtue signaling” which accomplishes nothing but benefits the signaler’s psyche by allowing them to feel superior to those less “sensitive” (“woke”) while enriching the merchant.

  29. Ezra Cornell | November 7, 2017 at 1:50 am |

    Folks, let’s not forget that there are black people in New England. In fact, many of them were there in the 17th century, long before a whole lot of other people now considered “old New England.” That’s not “white guilt,” it’s just plain old history.

  30. The truth, well told. As a white guy who has always been interested in advertising, I found the recent LL Bean ads exceedingly well done. I did not even notice the race of the family in the mud room ad and the turning of the welcome mat commercial is masterful, in my humble opinion. I think these ads will do well for the company.

    The LL Bean ads are a far cry from the television ads in the ’80s and ’90s for Calvin Klein Obsession and Channel’s ad for Egoist and Channel No. 5.

    Share the fantasy,

    Will

  31. For me, Bean was always about the boots. I could take or leave everything else.

  32. Carhartt, Timberland and Dickies are examples of clothing brands which were traditionally thought of as working class white ethnic brands, but all three have now made strong transitions to being middle class black brands. All three now offer pricey “upscale” lines sold only in trendy urban hipster store locations. LL Bean has tried this same approach, and largely failed, with their “signature” line of overpriced, weird-cut clothing. I hope their next move is not to abandon their core customer base who seek well-made, reasonably priced traditional-fit goods.

  33. From the perspective of their hunting gear, LL Bean has long been considered near the top, somewhere near Orvis and above other big retailers like Cabelas and Bass Pro. I could see that side of LL Bean vanish.

  34. The marketing is one thing but the bigger gamble here seems to be the addition of 5 more brick and mortar stores a year. It doesn’t take an econ whiz to tell that retail business is moving away from brick and mortar–the major department stores are all hurting with little sign of recovery. Why invest in retail at this stage? I can see opening a handful of stores in major urban areas to make the brand more upscale, but 5 new stores a year in this climate? Weird.

  35. JLH
    Orvis was always considered a rich man’s LLBean, although I believe the Orvis roots are more inline with A-F,
    high end outfitters.
    LLBean’s origins are as a regional hunting and fishing supplier in the NE. The same goes for Calbelas (Nebraska). The same for Bass Pro Shop ( Missouri ), except they also manufacture boats.
    All I known about Filson is their hunting and lumberjack gear. The Filson products I own I bought from LL Beam forty years ago and it can be bought at all the outlet mentioned, same goes for Barbour.
    Eddie Bauer had a store here in KC, never liked it, their products had a western vibe.

    Truth is that all these institutions have morphed many times into other things since their founding. I won’t live for another 40 years, but if Ivy Style is still around some guy will post about the great OCBD he got at Bass Pro Shop.

    I apologist for not critiquing Lands End, although when I see someone wearing their shirts I recognize it.

  36. Reggie Darling | November 7, 2017 at 2:52 pm |

    Its just a matter of time before LLBean is sold to Private Equity, which has been the death knell of many a brand, including Eddie Bauer and countless others…

  37. I visit my local (Burlington MA) Bean outpost pretty often to stock up on fishing gear or just to kill time on my lunch hour. Its impossible not to notice that, in my mid-40’s, I’m one of the youngest people in the store. While noon on a Tuesday isn’t likely to be prime shopping time for most consumers, the store is surrounded by thousands of young and, relatively wealthy, tech workers. Bean doesn’t need to eliminate classics lines but If they wish to remain an ongoing concern, some nod to younger audience is needed. Demographics are destiny.

  38. Mitchell S. | November 7, 2017 at 3:00 pm |

    It ocurred to me that Bean is a victim of the “Amazon Effect” that has plagued so many brick and mortar retailers. Lotsa luck competing against the world’s largest store.

  39. MacMcConnell | November 7, 2017 at 3:39 pm |

    Mitchell S.
    True, but remember LL Bean and others poached brick and mortar retailers long ago with catalogs.

  40. I believe that a lot of the agita here reflects the fear that LL Bean, by deciding that it needs to follow the relentless, insatiable model of continuous growth, will fall prey to the oft-repeated cycle of moving away from well-made, high quality goods that satisfied many a customer for generations to cheaper, lower quality but more widely consumed products beyond its core base — whatever race that might be. There is a genuine risk of that– and it happens more often than not, with the (handful of) successful transitions being the exception versus the rule. It’s too bad because unlike a lot of the other high profile brands that MUST grow in order to keep shareholders happy (since after all, there has to be SOME way to pay for one’s retirement)– LL Bean is a privately held company. Just as there are plenty of brands that become financially successful, for the time being, by growing market share– there are also brands that own their niche and are successful by keeping their customers happy. As long as the return on that capital invested is sufficiently high, it really doesn’t matter whether they sell to 1 million customers or sell over 1 billion (burgers) to customers. And while the good old Ivy folks of yesteryear are undoubtedly starting to move on to that J Press in the sky, this blog is evidence that there are others who are learning about and appreciating the truly good things. And willing to prioritize for it.

    And re. following the customer, don’t forget that the fastest growing category in clothing these days is in “fast fashion” with manufacturers such as H&M, Zara, and Uniqlo, with their business models of low priced, almost disposable clothing. Will they be around a couple of generations from now? Not betting on it.

  41. Another American to be dead soon! Why fix it, if it’s not broken?

  42. Forgot American icon

  43. Jim
    Fashion has always been trendy and disposable. Chasing fashion is like a greyhound race, the dogs never catch the rabbit. People that chase fashion are like those dogs.
    I always advise not to throw items out, trends recycle. In my lifetime only leisure suits suits haven’t reemerged mainstream.
    Even Ivy gets recycled as mainstream every decade or so.

  44. Agree Mac.
    I still have classic/trad/ivy things that are ancient, but still in perfect condition.
    When I go, they will bury me in them, as I’ll never give in to fashion!
    Jim

  45. I don’t think it’s the end of the world for LL Bean, although they’d probably be more attractive to Millenials if they positioned themselves as a heritage brand. Even if their marketing is changing, their current products are relatively consistent with past iterations (notwithstanding outsourcing)

    Even though I’m a Millenial, I don’t really like their Signature line…the materials seem to be of a lesser quality train their main line offerings. Bean is my go-to for flannels, fishing/shooting gear, and low-priced, decent sweaters. I ooze over their traditional hunting gear though!

  46. First, I really hope all of you have seen or will google the SNL skit for “woke jeans” (or maybe Levi’s Woke).

    On the topic of Bean’s decline, I think we should all take some comfort from the rise of smaller, more artisanal brands like Mercer, Rancourt, etc. Brooks and Bean can be driven into the ground but new quality makers will rise. The stuff we like – simple, comfortable, well-made, timeless clothing – is inherently good and will always be available.

  47. They also altered their return policy so it’s essentially like any other brand. I used to be willing to pay a premium for their mediocre products when they stood behind them, but now that the policy changed and the costs continue to rise, I don’t see the value in their Malaysian crafted clothing.

  48. I read (maybe in the WSJ?) that the gist of the new image campaign is to de-emphasize the connection to specific pursuits (e.g., hunting, camping, fishing, skiing, etc.) and instead to glamorize outdoor activity (“Bean Outsider”) in general. The idea is to broaden the customer base to people who think the outdoors is the place you wait for the commuter train or walk to your mailbox. The catalogue’s tagline is, “…thousands of items made for the shared joy of the outdoors”.

  49. Great comments

    but I always like to point out this entire sartorial decline has it’s roots in (new) wealthy people choosing to dress cheap in some strange attempt to patronize the rest of use working stiffs in some “hey look at me I dress in jeans and a hoodie just like you way”

    while us sartorial enthusiasts wait for clearance sales and save our pennies to score our clothing…

  50. As a youngster we used to summer on Lake Sebago. The LL Bean store and outlet was a place of solace. Many, many fond memories. My first real hunting gear came from them; I was over the moon then and will be once again when my newborn son wears/uses the same gear one day. My nostalgia will sustain me through this vitiating and nauseating “adaptation” of one of the finest brands America has know. A sad day.

  51. Forty years ago, there was no Mercer, no Rancourt, no Bills Khakis, no…well, no internet that, with the pushing of a few keyboard buttons, makes a countless number of USA-made products available to all. There was LL Bean, Lands End, Eddie Bauer, and Brooks. The catalogs and brochures were great and I am as vulnerable to the power of nostalgia as the next person, but a fact is a fact: if Bean stocked USA-made clothing, the prices would be considerably higher than they are–probably approximate to the cost of the USA-made shirts, shoes, khakis, and blazers that are now available “independently” (without affiliation with a giant retailer like Bean or Lands End).

    For the consumer who has plenty of money to spend, the Ivy/Preppy/Trad Heyday is, well, now. Not 1960. Right Now. We’re not limited by what the college shop owner wanted to buy (“at market”) for his customers, nor are we beholden to the tastes of the buyers and “designers” at Bean, Lands End, Orvis, or, for that matter, J. Press. If you want Rancourt to make an exact replication of the old Weejun using high-quality oxblood calf, you can. If you want Southwick to make a jacket according to your specs using bespoke tweed woven by a Hattersley loom weaver in Scotland, you can. If you want a shaggy shetland crewneck, there are plenty of sources, including:

    https://huckberry.com/store/shetland-woollen-company

    https://www.northern-fells.com/collections/shetland-woollen-co

    https://www.theshopkeeperstore.com/collections/vendors?q=shetland+woollen+co.

    If I want Irish Poplin–well, why not go straight to the source?

    http://www.atkinsonsties.com

    The list goes on and on.

    If one remains committed to a humongous retailer out of a sense of nostalgia, fine. But it’s not necessary. It’s repetitive and probably hyperbolic to say the internet has changed everything. But, well, it has.

  52. Other sources for Nordic/Norwegian sweaters, by the way:
    https://www.thenauticalcompany.com/nordic-sweater/prod_78.html

  53. gaba
    The roots are in the universities were young people dress like children. Then you have them getting employed and bringing “business casual” to businesses which they have arrived in management. Then you have older folk wanting to dress youthful. Soccer moms didn’t bring yoga pants on to the scene, but unfortunately they wear them.

    I’m not sure which Nouveau riche you are referring to, maybe Steve Jobs the first corporate leader to don a tee shirt. Less we forget Jobs dressed to the nines for most of his corporate career. The guy who most represents “attempt to patronize the rest of use working stiffs in some “hey look at me I dress in jeans and a hoodie just like you way”” would be Bruce Springsteen. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t count, he has issues.

  54. sad that the default thought when seeing a black person in an ad that you’re used to only seeing white people in is that it is an attempt to “court the…small…middle class black market.” is it not possible just to have non-whites in an american advertisement and still just be an ad to your intended consumer base i.e. people that wear clothes of this particular style?

  55. Chris
    Yes and no. On a personal level I agree, but advertising people are advertising people.

    We all know when Ralph Lauren began using black models, it’s been written about. I believe someone wrote their thesis on it. Why did it take a NY liberal and a founding member of People for the American Way like Ralph take so long to do it? Probably for no reason but to expand Polo’s market.

    I never really thought about RL’s advertising as all white till a black doctor pointed it out to me. He was a clothing customer of mine, loved RL’s clothing and loved RL’s ads. He wasn’t complaining, he joked about it. This was prior to 1980.

    Anyone know when LL Bean first featured black models?

  56. whiskeydent | November 8, 2017 at 4:07 pm |

    GS

    Saying white millennials are guilt-ridden is ludicrous. They feel no responsibility for racism because, well, they’re not responsible for it. They regard the previous generations as the guilty parties, and they are angry it still exists.

    Moreover, you’re saying minorities and white millennials won’t buy LLB because they don’t buy LLB. Perfectly circular logic. You gotta do better than that.

    I’m as skeptical as anyone about LLB’s chances for success. After all, their stuff seems stodgy to me, and I’m turning 59 tomorrow. Still, I never saw urban lumberjacks and steampunk 1890’s looks coming, so maybe LLB has a chance. They have to find new, younger customers somewhere.

  57. whiskeydent | November 8, 2017 at 4:15 pm |

    After smoking a cigarette, I realized that I see an awful lot of African-American men in RL gear. Maybe that because, to his credit, Lauren frequently featured black models in his ads. Maybe LLB is trying a similar strategy.

  58. Polo and Hilfiger were able to tap what in the industry is called the “urban” market. Perhaps it had to do with the advertising (which was anything but “urban”):

    http://www.ivy-style.com/black-history-month-a-gallery-of-polos-african-american-models.html

  59. Christian
    Polo and Hilfiger should be applauded, but it took more than two decades for them from 1967 to the early 90s to do it. On the other hand business is business.

    I’m free of “white guilt”. I do feel guilty about making excuses for not having painted my older sisters bedroom, bordering on virtue signaling on this thread, being too lazy to link the Ivy style African American model page and thinking maybe I should lock my office door and take a nap after eating a very large chocolate croissant.

  60. Pendleton – it’s definitely Americana but is it a Trad label to anyone but me? – flogged a “young” look to urban hipsters a few years back that seemingly flopped miserably.

    They be-clowned themselves by showing Portland (OR) 20-something hipster women toting a rolled up Pendleton blanket around the city as an accessory. A large percentage of their models now have an “ethnic” look – hey, can’t Irish still be ethnic? – but perusing customer reviews indicates their base remains solidly 55-75 y.o. Boomers.

    But they still sell lots of blankets to Native Americans.

  61. Vern Trotter | November 9, 2017 at 2:20 pm |

    @whiskeydent:

    It is not to Ralph’s credit that there are many African -American models in his ads. It is due to a consent decree with the US Department of Justice many years ago. Prior to that his ads featured blond, blue eyed white preppy types. Easy to research but I do not have time this afternoon.

  62. Derek DeBlasio | November 10, 2017 at 1:39 am |

    Dickheads.

  63. “Another American to be dead soon! Why fix it, if it’s not broken?”

    Because it is actually broken. The bulk of Bean’s sales these days come from outdoor lifestyle apparel- fleece outerwear, half-zips, hiking pants. Not Norwegian sweaters. So it makes sense for them to continue courting those customers.

  64. Jim wrote: “Another American to be dead soon! Why fix it, if it’s not broken?”

    Which causes me to present Mazama’s corollary: “If it’s not broken then don’t break it!”

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