Business & Tech

L.L. Bean plans to give its stodgy image the boot

A pair of Bean Boots.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
A pair of Bean Boots.

In its 105 years in business, L.L. Bean has become synonymous with several things: quality, durable outdoor gear, its famous catalog, and its particularly New England sensibility.

But it has failed to distinguish itself from the other outdoor brands it competes against, Steve Smith, the company’s chief executive, said Thursday. “We have an incredible brand and we have a ton of potential,” Smith said, “and we don’t realize that potential.”

The Freeport, Maine-based company has famously been a “bit of a castle on a hill” and been tight-lipped about its business strategy, Smith said at a breakfast meeting with the Boston Chamber of Commerce Thursday morning. But L.L. Bean is now making moves to expand beyond catalogues to focus more on retail stores and redefine its audience through a new advertising campaign. 

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Smith, an Amherst native and second 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.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
L.L. Bean has failed to distinguish itself from the other outdoor brands it competes against, Steve Smith, the company’s president and chief executive, said Thursday.
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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: “The folks who take people who shouldn’t be outdoors and then dress them up,” he joked. 

L.L. Bean has $1.6 billion in annual sales and 51 stores, kiosks, and outlets across the country. But it derives $1 billion of that revenue from e-commerce, Smith said. The company’s growth had stalled as its customers have aged, and sales have been flat for the past two years. The brand also weathered a storm of controversy around the political contributions of one of its board members, Linda Bean, who had donated $60,000 to a political action campaign in support of President Trump.

“The retail industry is in total distress,” Smith said, “and outdoor clothing and apparel is heavily challenged.”

The company is taking a pragmatic approach to its brick-and-mortar stores, he said, opening just five a year and pushing deeper into urban markets, including a flagship store in the Seaport, which is set to open next spring. 

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The company also has begun selling goods out of its Bootmobile, which draws between $15,000 and $20,000 in daily sales during visits to college campuses. The company has also increased production and is on track to produce more than 750,000 pairs of its signature boots this year.

Those 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.

The heart of the campaign is the company’s new marketing slogan “Be An Outsider,” a play on the Bean name and an attempt to draw in younger audiences, a demographic they’re calling “outdoor family enthusiasts.” Too many serious outdoor brands have long celebrated the notion of man or a woman versus nature, with ads depicting a small person against a dramatic backdrop. 

“We’re all indistinguishable,” Smith said, joking about his competitors. “It’s frozen beards and bloody shins. We don’t show joy.” 

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.

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The company has also made efforts to better align its manufacturing, marketing, and supply chain divisions, with the hopes of better serving customers (so yes, that might mean Bean boots might not sell out as fast). They’re also streamlining their offerings, focusing only on outdoor goods instead of sportswear, and moving away from making children’s clothing and focusing on youth outerwear. Parents don’t want to pay as much for clothing their kids will quickly grow out of, Smith said, but they look for durability. 

He also said the company was surprised to learn in customer surveys that L.L. Bean’s “100 percent satisfaction” guarantee of all of its products didn’t seem to be valued as highly as assumed. He wasn’t clear about what that revelation will mean. Earlier this year, the company said it was reconsidering its generous return policy

An earlier version of this article misstated the CEO Steve Smith’s connection to the company. He is the second non-Bean family member to hold the role of CEO, but the first to be hired for the position from outside the company.

Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com.