L.L. Bean leadership is pushing back against calls for a national boycott of the outdoor retailer in the wake of accusations that a board member violated federal election rules with her financial support of President-elect Donald Trump.
Days after the Federal Election Commission accused L.L. Bean heiress Linda Bean of giving $55,000 more than allowed to a political action committee she bankrolled, an online campaign added L.L. Bean to its list of companies to boycott. The Grab Your Wallet campaign – launched in October in response to Trump’s comments about women – encourages consumers to avoid retailers that sell Trump products or whose owners support the incoming president.
Shawn Gorman, executive chairman of the L.L. Bean board and great grandson of company founder Leon Leonwood Bean, posted a statement on Facebook late Sunday night saying he was “deeply troubled” by the portrayal of the company and called the boycott campaign by Grab Your Wallet “misguided.” He said L.L. Bean does not endorse political candidates, take positions on political matters or make political contributions.
“We fully acknowledge and respect that some may disagree with the political views of a single member of our 10-person board of directors,” Gorman wrote. “Like most large families, the more than 50 family member-owners of the business hold views and embrace causes across the political spectrum, just as our employees and customers do. And as every member of the family would agree, no individual alone speaks on behalf of the business or represents the values of the company that (Leon Leonwood Bean) built.”
CAMPAIGN EXPLAINS TARGETING
Linda Bean’s support of Trump garnered attention last week when the FEC said she made excessive contributions to a political action committee she bankrolled to support Trump. She is a granddaughter of the company’s founder and one of 10 members of the board of directors.
Shannon Coulter, co-founder of the grassroots campaign Grab Your Wallet, said group members decided to add L.L. Bean to its list after the FEC released more information about Linda Bean’s contributions in support of Trump. She said Linda Bean’s political activities, including her association with the Council for National Policy, a group that supports socially conservative values, prompted the campaign to add L.L. Bean to the list. It did not include Linda Bean’s company, Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine, which does not have as high a profile as L.L. Bean.
“I understand why L.L. Bean is concerned, but they need to face the reality there are repercussions for their company’s brand and bottom line when consumers learn what their leaders are up to in terms of their politics,” Coulter said in a phone interview from her home in California. “If L.L. Bean thinks a part-owner and board member can engage in this activity and have it not affect their bottom line, that’s very naive.”
Coulter said she was offended that Gorman is “attempting to whitewash (Linda Bean’s) political activities within a spectrum of political causes among its owners.”
The Grab Your Wallet campaign began last October in response to the release of a tape of a lewd conversation between Trump and Access Hollywood host Billy Bush. The campaign calls on people to boycott any retailer that carries Trump products. The Grab Your Wallet boycott list now includes more than 70 companies with ties to Trump.
The list includes New Balance, which has a factory in Skowhegan, because a company backed Trump’s trade policy. The list also includes Wal-Mart, Dillard’s, Kmart and other major national retailers.
Online shoe retailer Shoes.com announced late last year that it was removing Ivanka Trump shoes from its inventory in response to the Grab Your Wallet movement. Bellacor, Wayfair, Zulily, RueLaLa and Stein Mart also have removed Trump merchandise since the election, but haven’t disclosed why.
L.L.Bean did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
LINDA BEAN’S POLITICAL PAST
Linda Bean, 75, is a third-generation owner of the company. As a director, she does not deal with day-to-day management and like most family members has a limited role in the business. The exception is Gorman, who as executive chairman of the board works closely with company CEO Stephen Smith.
Linda Bean runs her own company, which includes restaurants, shops and an art gallery, and has been known for years for her strong support of Republican candidates and causes. She ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1988 and 1992, and more recently has made large donations to candidates.
In 2016, she contributed $60,000 to the Making America Great Again LLC, the FEC said. The individual contribution for the PAC was limited to $5,000. A letter from the FEC says the group could face punitive action or an audit. Linda Bean says she donated a total of $25,000, not $60,000, and was told the group was a super PAC that could raise unlimited funds. The PAC’s chairman has taken steps to change the registration to a super PAC.
In 2009, L.L. Bean responded to accusations that the company was opposed to same-sex marriage because Linda Bean had been identified online as a contributor to a campaign to overturn Maine’s same-sex marriage law. Neither the company nor Linda Bean contributed to the campaign. In a Facebook post on Nov. 6, 2009, the company said it has had a policy for many years of non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and extends employment benefits to domestic partners.
PROTECTING AN ICONIC NAME
Michael Hillard, a professor of economics at the University of Southern Maine, said a new form of social activism on a variety of issues has developed in the past 25 years that pressures companies that have a brand. Anti-sweatshop and labor activists have pushed for companies like Wal-Mart and Yum! Brands to improve working conditions or discontinue controversial practices. National boycotts have the potential to permanently damage a brand’s reputation and lead to millions of dollars in losses, he said.
“Brand reputation is literally worth, for many companies, billions of dollars,” Hillard said. “When you have an iconic name like L.L. Bean, it brings up a certain kind of connotation. It’s something that companies with an iconic consumer brand have to worry about very much.”
L.L. Bean was founded in 1912 in Freeport, where its headquarters and flagship store remain. The retailer recorded $1.6 billion in sales in 2015 and last week announced plans to double the size of its current production facilities in Lewiston and add 100 jobs to keep up with surging demand for the iconic Bean boot. More than 600,000 Bean boots were sold in 2016 and the company predicts it will sell at least 700,000 pairs in 2017.
The call for the boycott drew a swift and large response online, with nearly 6,300 people commenting on Gorman’s post and more than 21,000 people reacting to it within 22 hours. Most of the comments appeared to support the Freeport-based retailer, such as one from Debbie Lassich: “Everyone is entitled to an opinion and a cause without being threatened. I will NEVER stop shopping at LL Bean!” and Jim Toulouse, “Love LL Bean, their products and philosophy, and their generosity and philanthropy to the Maine community, and beyond.”
Coulter said the response to adding L.L. Bean to the list had a “much stronger” reaction from people than with other companies.
“They have a more visceral connection to the brand,” she said.
THREAT OF BOYCOTT SPREADING
Linda Varrell, president of Broadreach Public Relations in Portland and incoming president of the Maine Public Relations Council, said it’s not a surprise to see a strong response to a company like L.L. Bean, which has a generations-long connection to the state.
“You see in a lot of crisis situations with beloved brands that when something negative happens, the community rallies around it,” she said. “Folks are rallying around (the L.L. Bean) brand.”
Varrell said companies have always faced boycott threats, but the popularity of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter provide a broader audience. When faced with a threat, companies must respond in a way that is consistent with their brand mission.
Hillard said a call for a boycott like the one L.L. Bean is facing has the potential to “spread like wildfire” because of the broad reach of social media. Grab Your Wallet has about 30,000 followers on Twitter and 7,700 people on its Facebook page.
“L.L. Bean can hope this doesn’t have legs,” he said. “If it does, they’ll have to do more than a statement saying the company isn’t political. They do have Linda Bean on the board. It’s one of these only-time-will-tell things.”