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Monday, May 28, 2007

A Golden Rule - Misdirected

Do you know who Leon Leonwood Bean is? Perhaps you know him better as L. L. Bean, founder of the apparel and outdoor equipment retailer that bears his name.

A while back, I received a catalog in the mail from LL Bean. On the cover, in addition to photos of camping gear and clothing, was L.L.'s "Golden Rule" in large type.

"Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit, treat your customers like human beings, and they will always come back for more." - Leon Leonwood Bean

Mr Bean penned that nearly a hundred years ago, and I'm sure he intended the Rule to inspire company employees for years to come, and certainly well beyond his own demise, to further his company's growth.

However, I am not as certain that he intended the Rule to be presented to the customer as a reason to shop at LL Bean.

Let's break down the Rule into phrases. "Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit." Good merchandise speaks for itself, but is a company's profit margin a selling point? Do customers care if a store's profit is reasonable?

"Treat your customers like human beings." Wow. I don't know, maybe it's just me, but I think I'd kind of like to expect that anyway - not to have the founder have to explain it to me. This phrase is patronizing and doesn't make me want to shop there because they state, "Buy LL Bean gear and be treated like a Human Being!"

"and they will always come back for more." I think this phrase tops all for reasons why I should shop at LL Bean. "We make a profit, we patronize you, and yet you keep coming back for more."

LL Bean's Golden Rule has merit. Every employee should understand the history and importance of his Rule. But whichever advertising exec had the brainstorm to put the Golden Rule on customer-bound advertising material was misguided into thinking that such a move would boost sales given the employee-only nature of the message.

Apparently LL Bean's website agrees. They state his Golden Rule, but it's buried deep in the website under the retailer's background as a historical reference.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007 6:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think you're being fair here. You're largely arguing semantics - the phrasing of Bean's golden rule rather than the sentiment itself. I think you would be wise to remember that Mr. Bean wrote this about 95 years ago, and norms in writing have changed significantly since that time. Additionally, Mr. Bean was never a polished writer, but he got his point across. His very unique style helped set his catalog apart in the marketplace, and reminded customers that they weren't dealing with a slick city businessman, but a Maine outdoorsman who started a company to sell what he thought were the best products so people could enjoy the outdoors. I guess what I'm really trying to say is that you might be missing the point...don't think of this coming from a $1.5 billion company, but rather from a shopkeeper in the woods of Maine...then I think L. L. Bean's golden rule will ring truer for you.
-jjmche (at) maine (dot) rr (dot) com.

Thursday, May 31, 2007 6:39:00 AM  
Blogger The Sarcasticynic said...

Don't get me wrong, jjmche. My cynical diatribe to the contrary, it was my intention neither to knock the man nor his Rule, but rather to satirize how an unwary potential customer may interpret the Rule in its disembodied presentation.

I'm sure that 95 years ago that Rule was as meaningful, if not more so, than it is today, to his employees, and perhaps to the customers of the era as well. It's a great rule, with great merit, and I somewhat allude to this in my post.

But as you've stated, norms in writing have changed significantly since that time. I believe the majority of the store's current target demographics is unaware of the history and some may find, as I did, the rule as being somewhat misdirected. Nobody could expect a man to predict how one's phrasing could be interpreted 100 years later with certainty.

However, today's ever-perceptive ad agencies ARE expected to know exactly how carefully worded "copy" is to be interpreted, and my point is that they blew it with this one. Splashing Mr Bean's Rule across the front cover of the catalog without the underlying history, in perhaps a misguided attempt to revive an interest in the man and his vision, is tantamount to disaster in a consumer-driven "it's all about me" marketplace, in my humble opinion. It may not be right, but it is certainly popular.

That said, my post also suggests that on the LL Bean website, the Rule is right where it belongs - surrounded by the story that makes the Rule retain its historical perspective.

I agree with you that I'm arguing semantics over the sentiment. I believe I get the sentiment. I also believe that whomever took his Rule out of the context of the overall history and put it out front in an attempt to gain market share may have had very good intentions, but I don't think it worked in this case.

To summarize, I apologize if I've appeared to insult the man and his plan. I meant to point out that sometimes a 100 year old vision needs a bit of "revision" to continue to work in a modern marketplace.

Thursday, May 31, 2007 8:12:00 AM  

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