By the end of World War II, L.L. Bean products were being found in the homes of everyone from Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt to Doris Day, Babe Ruth, and the Aga Khan. Even John Wayne took off his country western getup to wear something a la L.L. Bean every now and then. But, was this just coincidence? Or was it part of a larger strategy on Bean’s part to grow his business by networking and creating word of mouth?
Bean was an outdoorsman at heart, not an entrepreneur, but that does not mean that he did not know a thing or two about successfully promoting his company. Unlike many of his peers and competitors, Bean knew that making connections and generating word of mouth marketing was more than just a lucky twist of fate. Instead, it was something that could be actively promoted, and that is exactly what he set out to do.
For Bean, customer service was his top priority. But, he understood that it took more than a happy customer to spread the word about his company. After all, people were much more willing to talk about his company when 90 out of 100 of the boots he initially sold had to be returned than when he refunded all of their money and improved their quality for the next time around. Bean did not want to just eliminate the negative word of mouth; he wanted to increase the positive and help accelerate growth.
In the beginning, Bean’s target market was hunters. His boots were for them, and so too was his marketing. Initially, his catalogue was even only sent out to hunters in the state of Maine. But as his product line expanded, Bean began to diversify his networks. When his women’s line of clothing came out, he started to target women more. He also expanded his focus from just fisherman, to other outdoorsmen, including hunters and campers. Getting hunters talking was one thing, but it could only take him so far. Bean knew that he had to be visible in a number of different realms if people were going to know who he was.
Bean also began to cultivate and develop his relationships with many high profile individuals, understanding that it was not really who he knew but how well he knew them that mattered in the end. Ernest Hemingway began recommending L.L. Bean products to his hunting partners, while Babe Ruth was so impressed that he sent Bean an autographed baseball.
And, Bean did not just limit his interaction to celebrities. He wanted to be in good standing with high profile athletes as well, knowing that their success while being outfitted by his company would reflect back well. That was why, in 1932, Bean succeeded in having his boots chosen to outfit the Macmillan Arctic Expedition team, after which the company received much positive publicity.
Bean never missed an opportunity to network. As one local writer from Maine wrote of Bean, “If you drop in just to shake his hand, you get home to find his catalogue in your mailbox.”