Useful Content Strategies: L.L. Bean

NOTE: Useful Content Strategies are a series of narrative posts in which I explore an idea for a brand’s content marketing strategy or program. I have not (unless otherwise noted) worked personally or, even, indirectly with these brands and, in most cases, I have no relationship with the brand, parent company or employees of either. These are just thoughts, observations and ideas. 

Image from: http://larryfire.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/spring_1933_-_original_cover_highres.jpg
Image from: http://larryfire.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/spring_1933_-_original_cover_highres.jpg

Fog rolls in off the bay, across the rugged rocks and kisses the feathery needles of the pines that line the shore.

A worn path winds its way up the rocky trail to the bald top of Cadillac Mountain, the first place to greet the dawn on the East Coast and a refuge for thousands of would-be adventurers escaping from the cities of America to find their place to resonate.

A small in-land lake with tea-dark water and fresh green bass, the cottages and their tiny docks, the skiffs launched from the side of the road, the canoes and kayaks paddled by the young and young at heart skimming the ancient boulders that line the bottom.

Somewhere in the Hundred Mile woods, a hiker nears Katahdin and the end of a six month trek that started back in Georgia, where the world looked different and would never again be the same. Coming up the path, swatting black flies and steeling their resolve, is another hiker just beginning the same trek, starting their way to a different world, a different perspective, a different life.

Along Highway 1, a motorist takes their time to take in the views – a fisherman casting for brookies in the early morning air of a stream not much wider than a sidewalk; the tidal pools that melt their way down from the dark, mysterious forrest and out into one of a thousand little bays; the famous leaves, the little towns, the place that seems both real and unreal at the same time.

In Rockland, the arts festival brings in some crowds. In Camden it’s the lobster. Way up north, in a place most Americans don’t know about, they make their way on sled and shoe from cabin to cabin, camp to camp through thick snow for a taste of the way life used to be, the way it could be.

Portland, tiny for most states, is the big city, the beating heart of culture and craft. Augusta, with its universities and a way of life no Californian could understand.

Head over toward Quebec and to country all it’s own. Hop a ferry ride to Nova Scotia out of Bar Harbor, a faster trip than the one down to Boston, New York or anywhere else. Or skip the ferry and take the mail boat out to Cranberry, where you can get away from it all – that is if you’d want to.

The summer fields, the winter cold. The spring wet and heavy. The fall dazzling, like a painting you can walk through, when the air gets a chill and you pull your favorite sweater out to run to the store. That smell of balsam burning in the fire – the stone hearth in your house, the pit in the back yard, the little ring of rocks you set up at your campsite. It’s that smell that sticks with you. And the smell of pine and salt, the smell of steamers coming out of the pot and the bar that welcomes you back – your glasses steaming up, your spirits lifting – after the tourists have gone.

Get lost by land, by sea, in your own little thoughts. Pack a bag, a lunch, an extra pair of gloves. Hike, paddle, fish, hunt. Drive, swim, sail, wander to that place that only exists in your imagination. And here. That place exists here. It could only be here.

This is Maine. There is no place like it. How could there be?

A BRAND APART AND PART
Seldom is a company so closely associated with a place as to define it, but such is the case with L.L. Bean and Maine. For more than a century, the company has used the rugged beauty of the state as a backdrop for its offerings – through its iconic catalog, it’s digital properties, the store campus, even the naming conventions of its products. Maine – not just the state, but the idea of the place – is central to the brand. For Mainers, ‘Beans’ is a cultural and geographic reference point. For customers far and wide, it’s an ideal achieved through commercial participation. A suburban dad in Indianapolis orders Bean Boots for the winter and a small piece of the place comes free of charge in the delivery. A mom in Tennessee sends her kids off to school with same Bean backpack she used as a girl. A couple in Cincinnati sits on the chairs they bought the night they got engaged in the furniture shop of the Freeport store. It’s Maine around the dinner table, that trip that changed their life, that set them on the course to three kids and a mortgage, a touchpoint and milestone in their life together – the life that took a turn and began again in Maine. The neo-preppy in her khakis and bluchers sets out across campus and stands apart through classic styling from her unkempt, hipster classmates.

L.L. Bean is an icon of time and place, of fashion and function and none of it would have been possible if it weren’t for the old northeast, the state of Maine.

The company, like many, has had to make adjustments over the years. To experiment and change. Technology has brought new functionality to its products. Fashion has forced it to adapt its clothing. But, at its core, the company remains largely the one founded in 1912 by Leon Leonwood Bean, a man with a strange name and a Mainer’s heart. He was a sportsman through and through. It was his love of the outdoors – specifically the Maine outdoors – that lead to his early product designs. The Bean Boot, the fishing and hunting gear. He catered to himself and people like him; people who got up before dawn and braved the cold for sea ducks, trout, the crunch of snow beneath his feet, the gargle of the trout stream, the feeling of the paddle hitting the water and pushing always forward toward a new adventure.

It was the place of Maine, the bounty of its outdoors that inspired his business, but it was the pride of Maine that helped him stand apart. When his first 100 pairs of Bean Boots proved defective, he took them back knowing that he could not rest until his customers were satisfied. While most stores in small towns along the coast kept regular hours, his doors never closed because he knew the odd hours of the passionate sportsman. That store and the ones that have followed still don’t close. Not the ones in Maine anyway. And the company, still family owned but long after his death, still stands by every single product forever, until the customer is satisfied. It’s this mentality, this approach to life and business that has made his company an icon. And it is Maine and its people that make this possible.

You won’t find trends on the pages of the L.L. Bean catalog, you’ll find value and performance. The company doesn’t chase trends, they create icons. And it has been doing so for a long time – through two World Wars, the rise of America’s global reach, the tumult of the mid-century and into a new one. It has adapted and changed, found success and had its share of failures, but it is, without question, more than a place to buy boots or some tackle, more than a touchstone of the preppy movement. It is a thread woven into the fabric of America, wound closely with the state it calls home.

SELLING THE STORY
L.L. Bean is an icon in catalog retail. It’s catalogs – familiar to most any American with a mailbox – have long been more than a series of product photos and descriptions while seldom containing anything else. Full page photos of products in their environment – being used for their intended purpose in the places that inspired them – iconic covers painted and shot by local artists, short snippets of information and inspiration, these are the elements that have told the story of L.L. Bean. It’s never a novel. It relies on your imagination, your ability to connect the dots between the fly fishing gear and the picture of the guide in the stream and your own daydreams of escape from the cubicle to that stream in the woods and the trout you may or may not be able to catch.

L.L. Bean has never hit you over the head with a story. Instead, they’ve hinted at it and shown you pieces – of heritage, of Maine, of the sporting and outdoor life; of puppies asleep on a monogrammed bed, a soft focus on the fire in the fireplace in the background; of kids running across a nondescript schoolyard with a backpack in tow; of a couple stepping from their Subaru in front of a small storefront in a town you can only imagine.  Bean has never told long stories, but story is very much a part of the company’s offering. And in the controlled environment of a quarterly catalog, that approach has been perfected.

But in the digital space, the brand has an opportunity to improve and build on the way it tells stories.

“Be Bean. Be Maine.”
Like a lot of heritage brands, L.L. Bean has had to make adjustments to keep up with digital living. The company’s website is now responsible for a majority of its sales, according to a friend who works for the company. And, if you look hard enough, you can find a company blog on the site that’s focused mostly on the environment and the Maine outdoors. On YouTube and Facebook, the company shares feature- and company-centric content: videos of photo shoots, interviews with sponsored outdoor athletes and professional staff guides and instructors offering tips on anything from fly-casting to dog sledding. For the hard-core enthusiast, it’s helpful stuff. They also did a few videos profiling people who wear-test their products before they are offered for general sale. There’s content about company events – like the annual winter fest at the Freeport store campus and short films about the Boot Mobile’s travels around the US.

But what seems to be missing is a through-line, a content organizing principle that brings cohesion to the brand’s digital story-telling. It’s not simply a tagline, but a call to action and, in my experience, it’s important to have two – one internally facing and one meant for potential customers and digital media consumers. The internal serves as a touchpoint, a filter or lens through which to view and judge all content development. The external is a benefit statement for the user. In the case of Red Bull, the brand most cited as being successful in digital content marketing, the internal content organizing principle is “Life Accelerated,” which reflects perfectly the brand’s adrenaline-soaked approach to content development. The external-facing principle is the familiar “Gives You Wings,” which elucidates the emotional tie between the brand and its customer’s desired state of life.

In the case of L.L. Bean – and, here, I have nothing to go on by way of marketing strategies or internal creative briefs and rely solely on observation, curiosity and a life-long love of the brand – an internal content organizing principle would need to accomplish the following:
Reflect the brand’s heritage and approach to product design and creation.
Reflect the brand’s unique association with it’s home state.
Allow for flexibility in story telling – going beyond the feature benefits to form a point of view.
Be adaptable enough to allow for seasonal changes and product development
There’s a few ways I might go here, but ultimately, the content organizing principle I would explore would be this:
“Be Bean. Be Maine.”

This simple statement is a call to action and a mission statement loaded with connotation and possibility. ‘Be Bean’ means simply to embrace the company’s ideals and heritage, to not be afraid to see the world and business the same way L.L. Bean did. The company founder was obviously a man of principle and opinion. He wanted things done a certain way, treated people a certain way and approached business from a perspective that prized fairness and quality over temporality and fad. This would be an interesting approach to content. It would mean focusing on people over product and ideal state over functionality.

‘Be Maine’ is simply meant to keep focus on the company’s unbelievable geographic and strategic advantages. Being so closely associated with a place is a huge opportunity for L.L. Bean. Be Maine means not just having pretty pictures of Camden or Katahdin. It means being a Mainer – hard and tough, but also beautiful and, yes, a little bit otherworldly. The closer the brand associates it’s story with the story of Maine, the greater that advantage  becomes. There’s a reason why tiny Acadia National Park is the most visited of all the National Parks and it isn’t just geographic proximity to major metropolitan centers. It’s because Maine, as a place, captures the imagination of visitors in a way few other places can. Bean should focus on telling that story – the one that captivates – as much as it should on telling the company’s story. They should be inextricably linked. And, when in doubt, the brand should leave heavy in favor of telling the ever evolving and yet timeless story of the place over product.

Here, Maine is the benefit and Bean products are the feature, the gateway to a place so many millions long for.

“EVERYWHERE, ME”
Mainers are not the prime target for Bean. For people who live there, they’ve already go their opinions and the brand is, no offense, not as special. Sure, there’s probably a certain pride of geographical ownership and doubtless thousands of Mainers have probably drawn a pay check or known someone who has from Bean. So it’s not about playing to the hometown crowd when it comes to a user-facing content organizing principle for L.L. Bean. Besides, the state has fewer full-time residents that there are people in Columbus, Ohio and the brand is not only national, but global.

Instead, digital content should create a sense of communion with the ideal of the place in the hearts of consumers who wish they could be there. It should be travel porn and day dreaming all wrapped into one. It should be about connecting people with an ideal and positioning the brand as a portal to that ideal. So, when it comes to a user-facing content organizing principle, it should connect people with the place they want to be. I humbly suggest this:

“Everywhere, ME.”

‘ME’ is, of course, the postal abbreviation for Maine. It is also a double-entendre that connotes the individual as a Mainer. ‘Everywhere’ is meant to imply, suggest, outright say that it doesn’t matter where you are physically located, you are still in Maine in your mind. The lack of specificity of ‘Everywhere’ will allow the brand to explore both sporting traditions of Maine and the places and life of Maine. It’s flexible enough to cover a lot of ground without being too broad as to be vague and meaningless. The fact that L.L. Bean was built on the strength of its ability to deliver high quality products to customers all over the globe is implied in there as well and allows for users to generate content about ‘their Maine’ from anywhere.

Building social equity around the #EverywhereME hashtag will allow the brand to manage and inspire user-generated stories, photos and tweets and create a conversation that goes beyond products and orders to a way of being that builds trust and brand loyalty. The hast tag is also easily trackable, own able and should create possibilities for social CRM.

STRATEGY NOTES
If L.L. Bean is to create as big an impact in the age of digital content marketing as it did in the growth of catalog marketing, it needs get serious about creating content-driven, user-centric digital experiences that consistently deliver on brand promise and equity. It’s not enough to make great products – which the company does. It has to tell a story – a clear and consistent story; a flexible and approachable story that invites participation and creates both emotional resonance and brand loyalty built upon that resonance. Accomplishing this will require a mission statement and a benefit statement for consumers that helps the brand cut through digital noise and become a beacon for both die-hards and the uninitiated.

The internally facing “Be Bean. Be Maine.” is a call to action for marketers and the digital team to think outside of the product offerings and immediate brand priorities, to create content that captivates and explores the brand promise.

The external “Everywhere, ME” is a flexible, yet specific, content platform that can connect social and owned channels and deliver a consistency of experience that bridges the gap between product feature and lifestyle benefit. It captures the desired state of customers and creates opportunity for own able conversation and user-generated engagement.

If L.L. Bean is to win in digital content marketing – as it should – it needs to think about these kind of brand-coalescing ideas to cut through noise and create signal. The close association of the company and the state, rather than being simply tradition is an opportunity for digital disruption and a clear right-to-win for L.L. Bean.

Disclosure: I have known several people who work for L.L. Bean for a number of years, though I have never worked for the brand. The company was featured in my book, “And Now We Shall Do Manly Things,” but I have never served as a consultant, employee or otherwise paid member of the team. Also, nothing was disclosed to me in order to facilitate this thinking. I am simply a fan of the brand and the guy who proposed to his wife in the store 12 years ago. I eat dinner every night on those chairs and remain a passionate fan of the brand.

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