FREEPORT, Maine — A California-based boycott effort that targeted L.L. Bean after the founder’s granddaughter donated to a pro-Donald Trump political action committee ignited a social media firestorm Thursday, including a tweet from the president-elect.
But there were no signs of that online cataclysm Thursday on the quiet streets of downtown Freeport. Loyal patrons of all political persuasions shopping at the iconic Maine retailer’s flagship and satellite stores said the boycott wouldn’t affect whether they shop at L.L. Bean. Most, including fierce opponents of Trump, deemed it foolish and misguided.
And the morsel of Twitter praise from Trump on Thursday could end up doing more to boost the brand that has about 53,028 followers on Twitter. The incoming president has more than 19.4 million, giving Trump a platform that Harvard business professor Katherine DeCelles said the president-elect has used in an unprecedented fashion.
“His behavior as a president-elect is completely different from anything we’ve ever seen before, in terms of the economic consequences,” DeCelles said.
Trump has taken to Twitter mostly to criticize major U.S. corporations or specific deals, going after Boeing in December 2016 for the price tag on a new Air Force One and slamming GM in moves that CNBC reported have proven their ability to damage a company’s public sentiment.
The boycott followed news that a political action committee bankrolled by Linda Bean, a granddaughter of L.L. Bean founder Leon Leonwood Bean, faced possible federal penalties for accepting more than $5,000 in personal contributions from her. The committee Making America Great Again LLC said it would restructure as an unrestricted “super PAC” to comply with federal law.
Linda Bean, a Republican who twice ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination in Maine’s 1st Congressional District, began purchasing lobster wharves and processing plants in the midcoast region about a decade ago. She created a brand, Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine, that now includes a number of stores and restaurants such as Linda Bean’s Maine Kitchen and Topside Tavern, across Main Street in Freeport from L.L. Bean’s flagship store.
While Bean is a member of L.L. Bean’s board of directors, she does not participate in the company’s day-to-day management. Trump’s tweet also highlights her lobster business.
‘Leave her alone’
On Thursday in downtown Freeport, customers flowed in and out of L.L. Bean’s various stores, trying on hiking boots and tying new skis onto their cars.
Wayne and Marie McCarthy drove south from New Sharon on Thursday with a pair of Wayne McCarthy’s L.L. Bean boots, hoping the store’s famous customer service slogan would cover the worn-out tread.
“They need to mind their business and leave her alone,” Marie McCarthy said of the online boycott organizers as the couple headed across Main Street.
“That man is a junkyard dog, but [the boycott] is absurd,” said Thomas Willoughby of Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, who described himself as a lifelong Republican — although he said he did not vote for Trump. “The woman is entitled to her opinion.”
“It’s sad and pathetic,” Susan Willoughby agreed.
Matt Ouellette of Auburn was unimpressed with the topic, and he said the boycott played no role in his decision to do shop at L.L. Bean.
“I voted for Clinton, but at this point it’s over,” said Ouellette, who was at L.L. Bean to exchange hunting shoes. “What are you going to do? He’s the president now, or he will be in a week. It’s time to move on and work with what you’ve got.”
Dr. Patty Bedker of Peaks Island headed across Freeport Village Station clad in almost head-to-toe L.L. Bean gear, she said, pointing to her yellow rain slicker, hiking boots, shoulder bag and striped turtleneck.
“I’m sorry. That family has done so much for this town,” Bedker said. “Hearing [about the boycott] makes me want to shop there more.”
“Listen, we’re Democrats,” said Dan Gagne of Poland, Maine, who had just picked up a pair of ice cleats. “We’ve got the best democracy in the world. We believe in free speech. It’s her right.”
An image problem?
Research indicates boycotts don’t typically affect a company’s sales, but prolonged bad press can harm its reputation, which in the case of L.L. Bean represents a century of careful branding. And that, in turn, can have other consequences that drive them to act.
Brayden King, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, said reputational damage could make a company a less attractive career option for up-and-coming business school graduates.
“MBA candidates are maybe less likely to take a job if they believe it’s a tainted company,” King said. “That leads to higher costs, and that would be true for private just as it would for public companies.”
King’s research found companies were most likely to respond to boycotts after seeing a decline in their public reputation, and those declines were exacerbated by more drawn-out media coverage.
Kelsey Goldsmith, president of the public relations firm Lovell & Paris, said the company’s statement could have done more to quash the story propelled ahead Thursday morning by a tweet from Trump and, later, from Gov. Paul LePage.
Thank you to Linda Bean of L.L.Bean for your great support and courage. People will support you even more now. Buy L.L.Bean. @LBPerfectMaine
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 12, 2017
It's reprehensible how progressives bullied @LindaLBeanMaine. Mainers & customers around globe cont. support of L.L. Bean! #mepolitics#MAGA
— Paul R. LePage (@Governor_LePage) January 12, 2017
“I think the story has more legs as a result of how L.L. Bean dealt with it,” Goldsmith said.
The company’s response focused on its employees, its history in Maine and respect for diverse political opinions, a response that Goldsmith said could have been more direct.
“L.L.Bean’s statement did not acknowledge the political climate, did not make an apology for not having procedures in place for the conflation of personal actions with those of the corporation, and did not address plans for moving forward,” Goldsmith wrote in an email. “Though it did acknowledge the news head-on, it seemed to be a plea for sympathy rather than a solution for rectifying the situation.”
In a statement Tuesday, L.L. Bean spokeswoman Carolyn Beem said the boycott effort attempts to attribute Bean’s personal political activities to the entire company, which she said is “illogical and unfair.”
“As with most families of this size, the views of L.L.’s family members cover nearly the entire political spectrum,” she said. “Unfortunately, some have attempted to attribute the personal political activities of one member of a five-generation ownership family to our entire company.”
Beem said the company does not endorse political candidates, take positions on political matters or make contributions, and “regret[s] any undue negative attention that this situation attracted.”
Bean took a more direct approach, appearing Thursday on the television show “Fox and Friends” to denounce the boycott as “bullying.”
The group behind the boycott, Grab Your Wallet, has taken broad swipes at the incoming Trump administration, putting more than 80 companies on its boycott list, noting for L.L. Bean that a “company board member raised funds for Trump PAC.”
Trump was third choice
The donations that sparked the uproar are hardly Bean’s first forays into supporting Republican candidates and conservative causes. In the 2016 Republican primary alone, Bean supported libertarian-leaning U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina before maxing out to Trump’s campaign in late June.
Bean has given more than $580,000 in political contributions from 1996 to 2016, according to state and federal campaign finance filings.
On “Fox and Friends,” she defended her right to do so and said that she’s not going to resign from the board of directors in response.
In fact, she said, “I heard from my son yesterday, who’s vice chairman of the board, and he said there’s actually been a slight uptick in our business this week.”