L.L.Bean Helps Workers Escape Cubicle Culture for the Great Outdoors with an Experiential Campaign

Zach Brooke
Key Takeaways

​What? Bean struck out to reclaim its roots by marketing the rewards of time spent in nature.

So what? L.L.Bean hired partners to construct outdoor workspaces.

Now what? The campaign became a media darling and social media sensation. Viral sharing reached more than 200,000 digital engagements and digital videos were viewed 2.5 million times.​​

How the outdoor recreation retailer convinced consumers their best work happens outside


Outdoorsman Leon Leonwood Bean developed his now-famous waterproof boot, so he could fully enjoy the tranquility of Maine’s fertile freshwater shorelines. In 1912, he lent his name to a new company, L.L.Bean, formed to market the innovative footwear to like-minded naturalists. For years, the brand was synonymous with camping supplies, wilderness gear and top-of-the-line quality. But by 2017, internal tracking suggested that the brand’s original message had become garbled. 

“We were founded 100-plus years ago as an outdoor brand, but we sell a lot of casual apparel as well,” says Kathryn Pratt, the company’s director of brand engagement. VIA, the agency L.L.Bean hired to bring clarity to the message, agreed; VIA CEO Leeann Leahy told Adweek the brand had fragmented and “lost its clear path.” 

L.L.Bean struck out to reclaim its roots by marketing the rewards of time spent in nature. The company underscored its “Be an Outsider” campaign with clever and cutesy investments, such as an ad in The New York Times fully viewable only when basked with sunlight.

But this was no one-off affair. “We’re really calling it a creative platform more than a campaign because it’s a customer-facing message that we intend to stick with for the foreseeable future,” Pratt says. “We are on a mission, as a brand, to get people outside.”

Pratt pushed harder this year. Rather than producing the same all-outdoors-all-the-time ads, Pratt wanted to develop more contextual messages. This change already pervaded the initial marketing, which omitted the extreme exploits of weekend warriors. The outdoors, the ads implied, weren’t just for steep-grade mountain climbers and certified divers. L.L.Bean depicted nature as belonging to all people—even those who enjoy simple strolls through parks with a picnic basket. 

But telling customers to fill more of their leisure time with the splendor of the outdoors would not be enough. Some quick calculations suggested an employment-based pitch was needed. Most of L.L.Bean’s core customers worked at traditional desk jobs where they presumably averaged 40 hours a week cooped up in cubicles, not counting transit time. No amount of weekend-focused escapism would change that fact. 

L.L.Bean decided to focus on the idea of incorporating more of the outdoors into work. Its still-fresh tagline was appended to “Be an Outsider at Work,” and the brand set out to change attitudes about doing business in nature.


L.L.Bean hired two more partners—brand experience agency Jack Morton and workspace provider Industrious—to construct outdoor workspaces.

But before the team put hammer to nail, they decided to ballast the effort with some intellectual heft, something that would give workers permission to step outside and metrics to make their bosses feel smart for allowing them to do so. 

Workplace design specialist Leigh Stringer produced a handbook on how America spends its time and the benefits of working outdoors. Citing a report by John Spengler of the Harvard School of Public Health, Stringer wrote that most people spend 95% of their lives indoors, with half of that time confined to an indoor workspace. L.L.Bean’s original research found that 96% of employees supported working outside more often.Stringer culled facts on the business benefits of working outside in spurts to add to the reports, finding that 92% of people are happier working outside rather than inside. 

“We would be better at our desk jobs if we got outside more during the work week,” says Ben Grossman, Jack Morton SVP and group strategy director, who led the project. “When we go outside during the work day, we end up being more productive. We also get fresher ideas. … Obviously, happiness is a huge part of corporate culture. We’re better at everything when we’re in a positive state of mind.”

Armed with research supporting its mission to bring more of the outdoors to office life, the team created a microsite dedicated to the “Be an Outsider at Work” campaign. The website included the handbook and a set of tips workers could use to fit more nature into their day while maintaining, or even increasing, productivity.

“We wanted to give people little ways to work outside every day, and that can be as simple as taking something like an interview and making it an outer-view,” Grossman says. “Or if you’re going to host a brainstorm session, consider it a fresh-air opportunity to bring fresh ideas.”

All this was a prelude to the campaign’s piece de resistance: a tour of pop-up outdoor coworking spaces in select cities. Led by Industrious, L.L.Bean set up fully operational offices in urban parks with high foot traffic. The offices were complete with docking stations and whiteboards for group strategizing.

The initial event kicked off in New York City’s Madison Square Park on June 21, and despite early reports of uncooperative weather, the sun shone brightly throughout the day.

The pop-ups were replicated over the summer in neighborhoods of Boston and Madison, Wisconsin—both cities where L.L.Bean recently opened new stores—as well as Philadelphia. 

Equally illustrative of L.L.Bean’s goals in this campaign was the omission of a traditional marketing action: hawking merchandise. Rather than tie the campaign to specific apparel, executives decided to make no direct mention of L.L.Bean products.

“We thought about ways to integrate product, but we backed away from that pretty quickly,” Pratt says. “We felt confident we had other marketing channels to focus on the products and that the goal of this campaign, in particular, was at a higher level. It was about getting people outside.”


L.L.Bean built it, and people came. By the end of the tour, employees from Google, IBM, McKinsey, Superfly, Blue Apron and Pinterest all booked space in the outdoor offices, along with several other people who passed by the outdoor offices. Some spaces accommodated 25 employees, others closer to 50—all performed at near capacity. 

The campaign became a media darling and social media sensation. Viral sharing—powered largely through a partnership with social news site NowThis—reached more than 200,000 digital engagements and digital videos were viewed 2.5 million times. Along with steady coverage in trade publications, the campaign wound up on the front page of USA Today, the most-circulated newspaper in the country. 

“USA Today was a huge win,” says Pratt, who drove around to convenience stores to buy as many copies as she could find to distribute to L.L.Bean leadership. “Knowing the reach that USA Today has and the alignment their readership has with our target audience, we knew our message was going to get to the right people.”​​

The traction created by the experiential campaign overperformed a small media investment. “We actually didn’t have significant paid media against it,” Pratt says. “The primary metric that we set going into this campaign was earned media, and we delivered above and beyond.”

L.L.Bean’s push for outdoor working has continued even after the pop-up tour ended. The mircosite remains live, and partner agency Jack Morton even created a permanent outdoor workspace in its own headquarters.

While the future messaging of “Be an Outsider at Work” is uncertain, L.L.Bean will surely continue to align itself with spending time in the outdoors. The brand is partnering with the National Parks Foundation and brainstorming ideas on how to bring the partnership to life. Future action will likely complement L.L.Bean’s already up-and-running outdoor discovery programs, paid clinics where customers can learn outdoor activities and survival skills.

These actions, brand strategists believe, can help the company develop an intense following that surpasses the devotion of people just shopping for quality products. 

“People are no longer looking for brands that are in the world just to sell us things,” Grossman says. “Our expectations of brands are increasingly that they have a point of view and that they’re creating a positive change in the world. It’s an important lesson for marketers to learn that the way to get the register to ring is not always necessarily by saying, ‘Buy this product.’ Sometimes it’s by saying, ‘Believe in this movement.’ That’s what L.L.Bean has exhibited.”

Zach Brooke
Zach Brooke is a former AMA staff writer turned freelance journalist. His work has been featured in Chicago magazine, Milwaukee Magazine, A.V. Club and VICE, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Zach_Brooke.