Building a company’s brand around its Maine identity isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. Sure, the state is beautiful, but Maine is also a state of mind — a way of living and a code of behavior that are often at odds with the very notion of branding. So how does a company create — and sell — an image that reflects Maine pragmatism, independence, and modesty without piquing Mainers’ scorn for pretension, trendiness, and braggadocio? We asked the minds behind three iconic brands about what “made in Maine” means to them and how their companies maintain the Maine ideal in an increasingly globalized market.
Interviews by Jesse Ellison
Co-founder of Burt’s Bees, philanthropist
So what does the notion of Maine as a brand actually mean?
Some of the things that Maine really excels in are its beautiful coastline, its beautiful woods, clean air, clean water — those are all really desirable to people who don’t live with them every day. I also think people are part of the Maine brand. Everywhere I go in the country, people who know Mainers are always so impressed with their integrity and their honesty . . . their simplicity. They’re sort of unspoiled, in a way. And hardworking.
When does branding become commodifying, though?
It’s the difference between selling the woods for mulch or paper and selling the woods for its beauty and recreational activities and for the solitude it can offer — the spirituality that one can feel in the darkness of the skies. We obviously don’t want to sell Maine as a commodity. That’s sort of a rush to the bottom. It devalues the product. You want to enhance the attributes of the brand as the intangibles that people desire in their life that they’re willing to pay more for, because that’s what they’re missing.
We once heard you muse about the value that the “Maine Guide” label might hold for outdoor or survival gear — anything ever come of that?
Not as far as I know, but it’s a good idea! You know, it’s so funny how the L.L.Bean boot is backordered because everybody all over the country wants to wear it. It’s sort of like that. [The Maine Guide brand] could be exploited for a commercial opportunity if the right attributes were promoted. I don’t know why people love the Bean boot — I mean, all the hipsters in California are wearing it now.
Does a popular Maine product like that run the risk of oversaturation?
I think it has to be carefully managed, just like anything else. When we were running Burt’s Bees — when I was running it, anyway — we never went to Walmart with the product, because we didn’t want it to become oversaturated and become a commodity. We wanted people who bought it to feel that they were discovering something really unique that reflected well on them as being unique and special people. If you overdo it and have it everywhere, then it’s not so special, it becomes passé.
Senior Vice President of Brand Communications, L.L.Bean
The “Maine brand” and L.L.Bean are almost inseparable.
Yes, Maine inspires the brand completely. It informs what we do. It inspires the products we make. Bean’s is Maine. Maine is Bean’s.
The Bean boot is now ubiquitous. Was there ever any worry the boots would become so trendy that they would seem a bit stale?
That’s the beauty of the Bean boot: it hasn’t gotten tired. It’s functional and smart and it works. It gets to the question about the essence of Maine: it’s pragmatic, it serves a function. I think it’s big in New York because it’s great for puddle season. A different kind of rain boot doesn’t give you the support and style that this does. And we keep adding to the repertoire of Bean boot — there’s a new tumbled-leather version with a shearling lining that’s gorgeous. There are all kinds of ways to keep it going, but I think it has a life of its own.
L.L.Bean has a remarkable appeal both within and outside of the state. How has the brand managed to maintain that all these years?
It harkens back to what the store used to be — a supply store for people who came up for trips. We wanted L.L.Bean to stock everything you need to have for the outdoor lifestyle. Our products are classics. They’re timeless and they’re for everybody. And if you stay true to that principle, it will always serve you well.
There’s something very Maine about your famous returns policy as well.
Yes, we have a 100 percent guarantee. It’s an agreement that we have with our customers. It’s based on faith and trust. We trust our customers, and our customers trust us. It’s like a handshake. It comes from a deep sense of fairness. You want to provide a service or a product and stand behind it in a way that’s honorable.
Integrated Marketing Manager, Tom’s of Maine
What does the Maine brand mean to the folks at Tom’s?
The company started with Tom and Kate Chappell’s vision of what Maine was all about. People in Maine tend to be pretty closely connected to the natural environment, and that closeness is a key component to living a healthy life.
So, you know, it really has been less about promoting “the Maine brand” as it has been about these ideals that they had about what the state is all about and how we wrap that into the way the company operates: That connection to nature is one. Certainly ingenuity is another. And honesty and personal connections in the relationships you have with people.
Ten years ago, Tom’s was bought by Colgate, a giant multinational corporation. What did it take for Tom’s to maintain its identity?
Maybe a part of the benefit of being focused more on ideals and less on branding is that those ideals became core to the company, and I think it was something that was purchased into. As opposed to buying an image that you’re then trying to project to the outside world, you’re buying a way of operating as a business. And understanding that has helped the company be successful.
You’ve been at Tom’s for 15 years — you went through that transition. You’re saying your office still feels as “Maine” as it did back then?
This office is so quintessentially Maine in so many ways. It’s an old shoe factory building — it’s old brick and exposed beams, and it looks out on this amazingly beautiful river in Kennebunk. You get a sense of what the state’s all about just by walking through the office. People take the time to talk to one another. My dog’s here today. I think it’s staying very much true to the sense of Maine.