The other day Sean Wilkinson was boiling maple sap in his backyard while drinking a Moxie. He was also wearing buffalo plaid and Bean boots. As he sipped and made syrup he was struck by the fact that he looked like a walking cliche. Like one of those Brooklyn hipsters who latch onto the notion of Maine and try to appropriate it in one long pine-scented gulp of rusticity.
“I realized even my brother who lives in Brooklyn would make fun of me and say, ‘Stop trying so hard,’ ” Wilkinson said.
But, as he points out, “I am really not playing a part, I have a maple tree and I genuinely like Moxie.” The Bean boots and buffalo plaid? He grew up in Winthrop, went to Maine College of Art, tried out another place (Seattle) and then came home. He’s not faking it.
Because his business is in selling – he founded and runs Might & Main, one of Portland’s best-known branding and design firms – Wilkinson has helped define the Maine aesthetic that emerged in full force alongside the farm-to-table-driven sustainability movement, from Rising Tide’s man-in-a-rowboat logo to Eventide’s oyster-shell-themed logo.
Wilkinson wants to conjure up images and branding that is “timeless and industrial and charming,” and Maine.
“Without saying pine trees and buoys and lighthouses.” He’s done it with words, and images, and even an accessory line for Might & Main called the 1820 Collection, featuring the Dirigo Beanie and the Mackworth Canvas Tote.
He and others describe the Maine aesthetic as rustic. It’s authentic. Outdoorsy, obviously, and homemade, but homemade with an edge of sophistication. In font form, it is probably rustic (although not faux hand-drawn, Wilkinson cautions; that would be trying too hard).
As a handknit sweater, it might be named for a Portland neighborhood or street, like Rosemont, and made with wool dyed – organically – in an old mill in Biddeford. It’s a leather handbag designed and made in Maine, photographed lusciously (although let’s face it, incongruously) on the rocks.
It can be ephemeral, like an Instagram feed featuring newborn animals, muddy boots and cornmeal freshly ground in a kitchen in Monroe. Or solid, like a waterfront restaurant serving the freshest, most ethically sourced seafood on steel tabletops salvaged from Bath Iron Works. (That last would be Scales, Sam Hayward and Dana Street’s new place in Portland.)
OK, mock. But keep this in mind; the Maine-made aesthetic sells. Well. In and out of the state. At least at this particular junction in American social history. There is a reason L.L. Bean still cuts and stitches its boat and tote bags and Bean boots in Maine, even as most of its merchandise gets made overseas. In merchandising terms, the state itself lends a priceless piece of credibility.
MAINE, IT’S A THING
Few understand how hard it is to define the Maine aesthetic better than the Maine Office of Tourism. In a six-minute video explaining the campaign that began in 2011, scenes of gorgeous Maine scenery roll by while a voice-over describes the state’s “brand platform.”
Extolling the state’s people, hand-crafted goods and “uncommon experiences” we’re told, “Maine has a mystique all of its own. It is a strangely hard to define quality, but you know it when you see it. It is something we call the Maine Thing.”
That term, the Maine Thing, is also the name of an emailed newsletter the tourism office sends out quarterly, a slick piece of eye candy that pays as much, if not more, attention to farm-to-table and brewpub Maine as it does to lighthouses. The concept of the campaign focuses far more on core consumer values than traditional sightseeing. “We really recognized the need to make this emotional connection,” said Carolann Ouellette, director of the Maine Office of Tourism.
The Maine Thing was conceived of by BVK, an advertising agency based in Milwaukee that won the bid to represent Maine branding as it relates to tourism. The slogan is vague, youthful and presumably intentionally unpolished, the kind of term someone would come up with as they were shrugging their shoulders to say “look, I can’t explain it, it just is and it’s awesome.” E. B. White would likely grimace in disgust at its lack of linguistic precision.
But it seems to be working.
In 2015, first-time visitation increased 8.3 percent over the previous year, which had an even more impressive jump, 43.5 percent over 2013 first-time visits. Overall the number of tourists visiting the state was up 3 percent in 2015 and 10 percent in 2014. This could be attributed at least in part to an improving economy and a decrease in the cost of fuel that has more Americans traveling domestically, but the Maine Office of Tourism attributes the uptick to its rebranding strategy.
“It had been flat and even in a bit of decline until we shifted into this campaign,” Ouellette said.
The latest component of the campaign has been what Ouellette describes as a “very aggressive” segmentation study. “We wanted to know which consumer groups most identified with the Maine brand,” she said. Of the six identified, the three that were considered to be most likely to visit Maine were balanced achievers, genuine originals and social sophisticates. The social sophisticates are more about appearances and achievement but the first two groups cite the importance of a living a green, environmentally friendly lifestyle. That’s why it makes sense that Maine attempted to woo future tourists by placing ads in a magazine like Outside, where subscriber values and interests run along the same lines. Those values are important enough to give a trip to say, Acadia, the edge over the Jersey Shore. For the nearly 100,000 Maine jobs supported by tourism, that matters.
BEYOND THE MASON JAR
I-know-it-when-I-see-it is a means of assessment generally associated with pornography, as in U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 pronouncement in an obscenity case based around an Ohio ban on the Louis Malle movie “The Lovers.” But it can apply to tourism advertising and to design as well. Take Troy Tyler’s decision six years ago to change up the packaging for Portland General Store, the high-end “grooming” essentials company based on York Street.
He and his partner, Lisa Brodar, started the company in 2007 after moving to Maine from Brooklyn.
Their first labels were handprinted, “generic apothecary,” Tyler says. Nice but, like the Mason jar, too omnipresent now to be distinctive. “I love that aesthetic but the problem with it is you don’t make a brand.” He pushed for a new design, which he said Lisa and customers resisted. The interlaced typeface he chose had a Depression-era feeling, like the kind of stamp one might see on a machine. Or a gun, like Smith & Wesson. Or in its vintage form, on the side of the Portland Company building nearby and in 21st century form, on the Central Provisions logo. It’s a heritage feeling that to Tyler embodied a solidity and authenticity that reflected what they wanted their brand to stand for.
“Something that is here to stay and is very well made and that we care about,” he said.
Having “Portland” in the brand name – he said they registered the store name before they left New York – gives them a Maine vibe that he says plays “really, really well” outside of the state. Ninety-nine percent of their sales are out of state (many in Canada, which Tyler attributes in part to the Canadian fondness for Maine as a vacation spot).
“I like to tell people we are sending Maine around the world,” Tyler said.
Their products include Uncle Jim’s Hardscrabble Hunting Camp soap, a “Saltwater” cologne (vegan, organic and featuring Atlantic sea salt “to give it an authentic, fresh twist”) and a “Farmer’s” cologne (which was mocked in the pages of the Los Angeles Times for being a $110 product tailored to have a calming effect on cows). Ten percent of the sales of the Farmer’s cologne are donated to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and Portland General Store also donates to the Maine State Beekeeper Association. Tyler and Brodar have carefully positioned their company to be associated with Maine, and thus with another heritage personal care company, Burt’s Bees (which is no longer made or headquartered in Maine). Is it Maine-washing, i.e., a location equivalent of greenwashing? Whatever the case, it has been good business. In another life, he might have done something more directly linked to the sustainability movement.
“Had I not done Portland General Store, I would have done something with the Slow Food agricultural movement,” Tyler said.
HOME AND AWAY
Designer Hannah Fettig lives in a 750-square-foot house in Kennebunk and has 23,900 followers on Instagram, where she goes by @knitbot, the name of her company. Her knitware is like some sort of mad marriage of Eileen Fisher elegant ease, hipster cool and the kind of hard-to-define Maine “thing” that the state pays BVK to come up with.
About a decade ago Fettig fell in with a knitting crowd at Knitwit in Portland, got a job there and found herself “head over heels with knitting.” Her design of a sweater she called the Whisper Cardigan made her name in 2009 and she sold 16,000 copies of the pattern for her next hit, the Featherweight cardigan. The design principle was based on the kind of drapey, jersey clothing she liked to wear. Then she and a friend who lives on the Central California coast collaborated on a book called “Coastal Knits,” filled with lush photographs of sweaters inspired by their own coasts. Her sweaters had names like Bayside, Water’s Edge and Rocky Coast.
“We are here in Maine and we want to use what we have,” she said. “And what we have is pretty amazing.”
That’s what Wilkinson refers to as authenticity. But it turned out to have an aspirational appeal, even to people who don’t knit.
“Some people told us they bought it as a coffee-table book,” Fettig said.
Fettig is the flipside to the Tylers, who very consciously created their version of the Maine aesthetic with the awareness that it would play well elsewhere. After the success of “Coastal Knits” (it sold about 30,000 copies, she said) she had a realization about the way her home state resonated.
“People have a very romantic view of Maine,” she said. “A lot of people have been here at least once and they have that as a very positive, nostalgic part of their memory.”
All the sweaters in her latest book, “Home & Away,” have Maine names, including Georgetown, named for the town where she and friends Dan and Neesha Hudson photographed and styled each piece. The model wears a pair of vintage Bean boots in every shot, including the dreamy cover photo of snow falling over the sea. She’s holding a suitcase Fettig found the day before at Goodwill. Another sweater was photographed in front of the workshop where Docksmith’s driftwood docking stations are made (“bringing nature into people’s high-tech lives since 2011”).
It’s a beautiful book, the kind that can send you right to the website of another Maine company, Quince, which Fettig frequently collaborates with, to order up a dozen or so skeins of wool and set to work on a project, that yes, might make you feel like a Mainer, but a 21st-century one, feeding the chickens in local far-from-yokel style.
THE TIPPING POINT?
About that aspirational quality that sells Maine; will it dwindle? The question is on Fettig’s mind.
“I literally hit a point a couple of weeks ago where I was just kind of looking at what is going on and thinking, am I gagging on the Maine experience right now?” Fettig said. “Is it too much?”
She’s gone from being a knitter with not a lot of business acumen – she nearly brushed off her first publisher’s offer to do a book when she was getting started – to an experienced marketer. She thinks about over-saturation.
“It is hitting me so that probably means it is hitting other people,” she said. “I am not saying anything anyone is doing is wrong. I just want to keep it authentic for me.”
She doesn’t want to contribute to anyone feeling that the Maine Thing, as it were, is being overused. Neither does Wilkinson. His client list includes Piccolo, Home Remedies, Central Provisions and newcomer Roustabout.
“I would love to be able to brand restaurants for the next 25 years,” he said. “But there is a potential for saturation, and we want to be careful about that.”
He’s expanding Might & Main’s reach, including to a couple of restaurants due to open in Boston at the end of the summer. He’s found that clients outside of Maine are drawn to his aesthetic, Maine inspired or otherwise. He’s not running a fire sale on the Dirigo line any time soon.
“We might be getting to a tipping point, but I don’t think it is going to be a precipitous fall,” Wilkinson said. “I don’t think we are even going to notice, but things are just going to ramp down.”