About 20 years ago, I was invited to the National Geographic headquarters in Washington, DC to consult on their catalog. I walked into a big conference room filled with about 20 people. The creative director for the catalog ran the meeting.
He announced that they were planning a full redesign of the catalog and wanted my input.
Now, keep in mind, we are talking about the National Geographic catalog, which in my mind, is fairly similar to the magazine. I have always felt that you could not get much more middle-of-the-road, average American household than the National Geographic magazine. According to Wikipedia (always a reliable source), they have 6.8 million members/subscribers. Even George Bailey mentioned them in It’s A Wonderful Life, a movie made 70 years ago! The National Geographic is as all-American as apple pie, hot dogs at the ballpark, and fireworks on the 4th of July.
And so, what “brand” did the Creative Director want to emulate with his proposed redesign of this iconic All-America catalog? “We want to be like Louis Vuitton”. (He even pronounced Louis Vuitton with a really annoying phony French accent).
As I recall, my initial reaction was something along the line of “What the hell are you thinking?” The meeting deteriorated at that point, with half the room saying “told ya’ so” and the other half saying “but we have to change”. The company I was representing at the time did no further consulting to the National Geographic.
I bring this up because a month ago, I started getting emails from clients, friends and readers of this blog asking if I had seen the latest catalog from L.L. Bean. I’m sure most of them are wondering why it has taken me four weeks to comment on it here.
If you did not receive a copy, it is physically quite impressive, and certainly nothing like anything Bean has mailed before (or, at least not to me). It is a very large trim size (9 x 10), 324 pages, and perfect-bound. From a content standpoint, it also is not your average LL Bean catalog. Ninety percent of the photos are lay-flat silhouettes, with very few models (I counted less than 20 model shots in the entire book). The copy blocks are about the same as would be found in a traditional Bean catalog, but because there is (mostly) one product per page or per spread, the copy looks “minimalist” in comparison to what you are accustomed to in a Bean catalog.
To be honest, the book has me puzzled. It reminded me of an H&M catalog for grown-ups. Based on the number of people that contacted me, Bean must have carpet-bombed most of New England with these things. It certainly does not appear it was mailed to a selective audience of LL Bean credit card holders (which my wife and I are).
They are obviously “making a statement”. A very expensive catalog branding statement. I’m sure that internally, the PR team is using words like “cool and contemporary” to describe it. But what are they trying to do?
I read this spring that LL Bean had hired a new Chief Brand Officer, a Brit with lots of retail and consumer goods experience, but I saw no mention of any catalog experience. Couple this with the fact that LL Bean hired a new CEO last year (only the 4th CEO in 104 years), and in my opinion, you’ve got two guys that are in a rush to make some changes, and apparently, the bigger the better. I’m certain that they also told the existing staff in Freeport, who collectively have hundreds of years of catalog experience, that they (the two new guys) knew what was best when it came to designing a catalog, and branding LL Bean. (We’ll see how well that works.)
It is obvious that with this one catalog, LL Bean is trying to retro-fit their brand and image to appeal to millennials. Of course, everyone I heard from that had received the catalog was over 50 (I think you are all over 50, and I apologize to any of you who that have yet to reach that milestone).
As one of my readers described it “The higher ups at Bean are not listening to their core customers. They are all thumping their chests and trying to compete with Pokémon Go for millennials’ face time.” Of course, they are using a print catalog to try to reach an audience for whom print may not resonate.
Moreover, much like National Geographic, LL Bean is one of those iconic brands that have survived for 100+ years by being loyal to their roots, loyal to their heritage, and loyal to their customers. (LL Bean actually has a style-guide for how their copy is to be written, which draws heavily on the fundamental philosophy of the original Leon Leonwood Bean, who I’m sure is spinning in his grave at the moment.)
I’m always concerned when I see a catalog making changes that just seem totally out of character. Sure, brands have to change and evolve. But that is why I waited a month to see what else came along from Bean this season. I have received two subsequent catalogs from them, both of which are typical, average LL Bean catalogs. So the “behemoth” appears to have been a one-shot deal. A “coffee table keeper” for their customers and a folio-sized gift from heaven for LL Bean’s printer.
Plus, the book reverses every initiative that Bean has made in the past few years – and which I have applauded – of having smaller books, and driving people online to see their product. There are some (but not many) call-outs in this behemoth to “go online to see more styles and colors”. But why would you? This catalog is meant to give the impression of being the most comprehensive, omnipotent bible of LL Bean products ever assembled. What could possibly be online at LL Bean.com that would be of any interest if it were not already shown in this book?
Finally – and this is most important – the catalog is ugly. Really damn ugly. And boring. It is not aspirational or inspirational at all. It’s like an office supply catalog, and when was the last time you were motivated by receiving one of those?
There is no warmth or charm to this catalog. There were two photos with some children playing by themselves. But no families, no family fun. No Christmas trees, or little Maine fishing boats. Of the few model shots with women, most of them had that “No I don’t smile and I don’t want to be here” look found in high-end women’s fashion catalogs.
Although it baffles the imagination as to why they would do this, maybe the new leadership at LL Bean felt compelled to “remove the shackles” of the past 104 years and go after a different audience. But do you do that with a catalog? Not if you believe that people are using mobile phones to shop. Do you appeal to a younger audience by creating a stark, “anti-LL Bean looking” LL Bean catalog? Probably not if you want to keep your existing customers.
This behemoth from LL Bean is your typical “let’s change creative” effort by non-catalog professionals, who don’t understand or appreciate that changing merchandise is the only thing that will appeal to a new generation of buyers. We’ve all seen this play out before in Plano, TX and Dodgeville, WI – you would think that someone would be paying attention.
LL Bean has been the leader in so many great ways in cataloging. Just a few weeks ago, I wrote in this space the following “LL Bean is not a Datamann client, but I look at them as an example of 100+ year old catalog company that has evolved to keep up with changing times. In my opinion, one of the seminal moments in the history of cataloging occurred in 2011 when LL Bean decided to offer free shipping on all orders, all the time. I’m sure they did not want to go down that road, but they did. They changed their business model without fundamentally changing their product – which is after all what customers are buying. I’m not going to list all the changes that I’ve seen them make, but they have been considerable. I’m sure things are not perfect at LL Bean, but on the surface, they seem to be adapting as best as can be expected for a company with such a long tradition of relying on a printed catalog.”
But this 324 page beast is just a huge, dumb, expensive mistake. Their existing customers were not calling in demanding an encyclopedia of products with all the excitement of the phone book. Even great brands are allowed to make a mistake once in a while. The next time the guys in Freeport want to make a statement, maybe they will focus on developing some innovative new products rather than creating an ugly coffee-table showpiece with all the romance of a Staples catalog.
If you are not already signed up for emails from this blog, click here.
by Bill LaPierre
VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics
Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235