Donald Trump and the Plight of L.L. Bean

A presidential tweet. Boycotts. Buyouts. 2017 is off to a rocky start for New England’s most iconic brand. Can new CEO Stephen Smith help his company get back on the right trail?

If 2016 was a year of learning how the house of Bean was hard-wired, then Smith wanted 2017 to be the year of tightening the screws so that everything could run a little smoother, a little faster, and a little more efficiently. Then, in the first week of the new year, Linda Bean entered the picture and short-circuited everything.

This was not the first time Leon Leonwood Bean’s granddaughter had made headlines; for years, she’d been a walking public-relations disaster. She unsuccessfully ran for Congress as a Republican on two occasions, including a bitter 1992 campaign during which she labeled her Democratic opponent an “extreme leftist” and blasted her own party for being too moderate—not great when the company bearing your name is in the business of selling outdoorsy stuff to liberals and conservatives alike. Then there were those poor lobsters, Maine’s sacred icon. In 2009, she launched Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine Lobster Roll, a chain of fast-casual eateries—and soon came under fire when a video surfaced showing employees at a processing plant, according to PETA, “ripping live animals apart limb from limb.”

But where those previous kerfuffles had failed to make much noise outside of Vacationland, Linda’s latest debacle would be very different. On January 6, the Associated Press reported that the FEC was investigating her for allegedly making tens of thousands of dollars in excessive contributions to a pro-Trump political action committee. Meanwhile, several thousand miles away, in the San Francisco Bay Area, a marketing professional and anti-Trump activist named Shannon Coulter was deciding whether to make L.L. Bean her next target.

Two months earlier, Coulter had co-created the Twitter hashtag #GrabYourWallet as a call to action for American consumers to boycott certain companies that aligned with Trump or his family. It was in response, she says, to Trump’s public “Grab them by the pussy” bombshell. Coulter’s posts instantly went viral as she zeroed in on companies including New Balance, MillerCoors, and Bed Bath & Beyond.

Coulter, though, initially wasn’t certain about adding L.L. Bean to her list. “I definitely wore L.L. Bean growing up,” she says. More important, the FEC’s investigation pointed to the actions of a single board member, Linda Bean, and not the company itself. Unsure what to do, Coulter sat down in her apartment, opened her laptop, and asked thousands of #GrabYourWallet Facebook followers whether the actions of Linda Bean merited a companywide boycott. The answer was a resounding yes. “Boycotting now,” one commenter wrote. Another added, “Say it isn’t so LL?! Boycott list they go…” “Damn it,” another lamented. “I’m wearing my Bean boots and my Primaloft coat from them today actually. Le sigh.” Satisfied with the response, Coulter added L.L. Bean to her boycott list and tweeted it out.

In today’s knee-jerk world of social media movements, anyone able to gain a following like Coulter’s can wield tremendous influence and turn a few sparks into an inferno. And that’s exactly what happened. Within hours of Coulter’s call for an L.L. Bean boycott, Twitter erupted and liberals began shunning the company and returning previously purchased items en masse. Newspapers ranging from the Portland Press Herald to the New York Times caught wind and news of the boycott spread like wildfire.

L.L. Bean did what any company might do and tried to distance itself from Linda Bean’s political leanings. The company issued a statement on Facebook explaining that it is apolitical and does not endorse candidates or make political contributions. “Like most large families,” the statement said, “the more than 50 family member-owners of the business hold views and embrace causes across the political spectrum, just as our employees and customers do.”

After several days, it looked like the worst had passed; the negative headlines dissipated and Smith flew to Salt Lake City for the trade show. But then Linda made her appearance on Fox & Friends, followed by Trump’s endorsement, and everything went to hell. Suddenly, the company—whose flannel-clad image had long been among the least controversial brand identities imaginable—was under scrutiny like never before. After the Trump incident, no Bean move went unnoticed, no platitude untrolled.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the company tweeted a scenic picture of Maine’s rocky shoreline and a lighthouse, accompanied by a quote from Dr. King: “The surest way to be happy is to seek happiness for others.” Almost immediately, the over-the-top responses started coming in. “Mr. King would be aghast if he found out LL Bean sends cash to White Nationalists/KKK. Horrible! Spreading the Boycott.” Then came a cartoon of two KKK members, one holding a “Vote Trump” sign. Ever devoted to customer service, L.L. Bean tried to respond to one of the less caustic messages, but it only encouraged attackers and made things worse.

Proving that no line is so thin as the one between love and hate, L.L. Bean elicited the most passionate customer response of any company that Coulter placed on her #GrabYourWallet list. She’s received uplifting messages of support, she says, as well as her first real threat. Still, Coulter remains firm, insisting that L.L. Bean isn’t coming off the list until the company boots Linda Bean from its board.

 

Two days after Linda Bean appeared on Fox, Smith sat behind the wheel of his black Dodge Durango driving toward the company’s flagship store in Freeport, Maine. From there he was headed to two nearby customer service centers where employees were still being blitzed by angry callers, emails, and social media screeds. Smith hoped to gauge the fallout and assure workers on the lower rungs of the company ladder that they were all in this mess together. “There’s a great Chinese proverb, which is ‘May you live in interesting times,’” he said with a laugh of disbelief before getting out of his truck. “We’re in them now.”

Just as no one could have foreseen that an FEC notice would turn into a national controversy involving the White House, no one can say if this latest PR debacle will have a lasting effect on the company. For more than a century, L.L. Bean has banked on predictability. Now that it’s Smith’s turn to lead the company, he finds himself in a world that’s more unpredictable than ever—especially for America’s biggest brands. In early February, Trump blasted the department store Nordstrom on Twitter for treating his daughter Ivanka “unfairly” after the company announced it would no longer sell her line of clothing and accessories. Boeing, Ford, and General Motors have also received the president’s wrath over social media. With each new company that Trump assails, attention is drawn away from L.L. Bean, but Smith is painfully aware of how quickly chaos can emerge these days.

Regardless of what comes next—be it layoffs or even radical changes to its customer service policy—L.L. Bean remains impressively self-assured when so many clothing companies are suffering identity crises (look no further than Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap, and Tommy Hilfiger). The brand is flannels and fireplaces, and Smith knows not to mess with what works. “We’re not intentionally trendy, but we have lot of trendy things,” he says, acknowledging that sometimes the company just gets lucky and what’s en vogue happens to align with Bean’s style.

Luck, though, can only carry a company so far. For L.L. Bean to remain profitable and grow, Smith knows he needs to bring a laserlike focus to everything he does. Of course, that’s easier said than done when Linda Bean is on your board and Trump is throwing lightning bolts from above. “I feel the weight of the job all the time,” Smith says. “This is a 105-year-old successful business, and I don’t want to screw that up.”


Chris Sweeney Chris Sweeney, Senior Editor at Boston Magazine csweeney@bostonmagazine.com


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