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LL Bean renews focus on the outdoors

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In this Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017 photo, L.L. Bean CEO Steve Smith poses in his office in Freeport, Maine. Smith is leading L.L. Bean’s plan to sharpen its focus on inspiring its customers to “Be an Outsider,” to enjoy the outdoors with friends and family. In this Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017 photo, L.L. Bean CEO Steve Smith poses in his office in Freeport, Maine. Smith is leading L.L. Bean’s plan to sharpen its focus on inspiring its customers to “Be an Outsider,” to enjoy the outdoors with friends and family. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

FREEPORT — L.L. Bean 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 campaign starting this month that celebrates the outdoors as something to be enjoyed with friends and family.

The quirky campaign features a family having fun at a cabin, a young canoeist howling and 20-somethings shedding their clothes before jumping off a dock into a lake. The company is trying to draw a contrast to competitors that show the outdoors as a landscape to be individually conquered.

“It’s a migration almost back to where we’ve been — and being truer to the original L.L. Bean brand and the outdoor heritage of our brand,” Shawn Gorman, the company’s chairman and grandson of founder Leon Leonwood Bean, told The Associated Press.

Many venerable brands like Macy’s, Sears, J.C. Penney, Gap and even some L.L. Bean competitors such as 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 Freeport-based 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 authenticity that comes from L.L. Bean’s century of retailing is a good thing, brand experts say, especially when both baby boomers and younger shoppers are feeling nostalgic. 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.

L.L. Bean says it learned during its branding project that customers lovee its 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, said CEO Steve Smith 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 said.

Retailers trying to appeal to broad audiences have struggled more than those with a tighter emphasis, experts note.

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

“It’s something that we believe in,” Gorman said. “We’re trying to enable people to get outdoors.”

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