LL Bean wants to be part of outdoor fun

FREEPORT, Maine (AP) — L.L. Bean has done some soul-searching. The century-old brand known for Yankee durability is putting a renewed focus on the fun of being outside as it tries to invigorate sales in a fast-changing marketplace.

“Be an Outsider,” the chain is urging, in a quirky new ad campaign that embraces its hunting and fishing traditions but emphasizes the outdoors as an accessible place to enjoy with friends and family. It’s a contrast to how some competitors position themselves, with the outdoors a landscape to be conquered.

“Just step outside your front door and you’ve arrived,” said CEO Steve Smith, quoting the company’s “manifesto.”

The campaign features a family having fun at a cabin, a young canoeist howling and — gasp — some 20-somethings shedding their clothes before jumping off a dock into a lake. The “manifesto” was printed in the New York Times with invisible ink that can viewed only in sunlight.

Many venerable brands like Macy’s, Sears, J.C. Penney, Gap and even some L.L. Bean competitors like Eddie Bauer and Lands’ End have struggled to find their footing as retail sales move online.

L.L. Bean is not immune to the retail woes. Facing flat sales of about $1.6 billion for two consecutive years, the retailer announced this year that it’s changing its pension plan, pruning its 5,000-member workforce with early retirements, and scaling back the number of store openings. It’s even taking a hard look at its generous, return-anything-at-any-time policy.

The company learned during its “brand project” that customers love L.L. Bean’s products and customer service but sometimes lack an emotional connection to the brand. That made the company realize it needed to circle back to its roots, building off the core outdoor business, Smith said.

The retailer came away with a determination to return to its roots, focus on the outdoors, and prune its product lineup, Smith said. The outdoors theme will also be reflected in the company’s charitable giving and strategic partnerships, he said.

“We’re doubling down. We need to be clear about who we are and what our identity is, and then communicate in a very compelling way to customers, knowing that others are collapsing around us,” Smith told The Associated Press.

The authenticity that comes from L.L. Bean’s more than 100 years of retailing is a good thing, brand experts say, especially when both baby boomers and younger shoppers are feeling nostalgic.

The trend was seen in the last Super Bowl with ads featuring actors like Don Rickles, music from Kool & the Gang, and sock puppets. L.L. Bean’s made-in-Maine boots have been riding the trend with record sales.

But companies with long traditions can be reluctant to change, and retailers like Bean are getting nibbled at both from smaller niche brands and from larger competitors, said Tim Calkins, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

“The hardest thing about a brand is that when you’re doing well, it becomes hard to change,” he said.

The company’s decision to shift its approach is important, experts say, because retailers trying to appeal to broad audiences have struggled more than those with a tighter emphasis.

“If a brand tries to stand for everything, then it stands for nothing,” said Allen Adamson, founder of Brand Simple Consulting. “Strong focus is key.”

L.L. Bean says it feels good about the way it’s positioning itself as a brand focused less on individual pursuits and more on family and friends enjoying the outdoors, whether it’s a remote lake, or local park.

The company’s founder, Leon Leonwood Bean, often talked about the physical and spiritual rewards of being outside, and executives say it’s more important than ever that people seek the outdoors as an antidote to modern stresses.

It’s a migration almost back to where we’ve been — being truer to the original L.L. Bean brand and the outdoor heritage of our brand, and making sure we meet the needs of that group,” said Shawn Gorman, the company’s chairman and L.L.’s great-grandson.

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