After more than eight decades and millions of satisfied customers, the folks at L.L. Bean decided to confront one of the biggest problems with its most famous product.
Legions of Maine Hunting Shoe owners know that sinking feeling when gravity grabs their socks and draws them ever lower until they bunch up under their heels. "Sock suck -- that's what we call it around here. That's what my mom called it -- didn't yours?" says A.J. Curran, active footwear developer for Bean.
Problem defined, but what to do?
At Bean, they gave tradition the boot.
Currently debuting is the "Y2K compliant" Bean Boot: "It took nine years, 35 prototypes and 100 field tests to achieve a boot of this high quality," claims the fall 1999 catalog.
At first glance, the result will not knock your socks off. The 1999 rubber-and-leather model looks like the first 100 pairs Leon Leonwood Bean mailed to his customers in 1912 from his Freeport, Maine, shop.
But, says Curran, that's the point. "It needed to look exactly the same. We would have gotten a lot of letters if we had messed with the classic look. Finally the technology became available to make that happen," he says.
The new boot uses a mold developed in Italy and a rubber compound invented in Massachusetts that allowed Bean to make a lighter, better-insulated boot with more traction. According to the company, it's 250 percent more "abrasion resistant" than its predecessor.
But getting from concept to production wasn't easy, say the designers.
The first hurdle was psychological, the second technological, the third familial.
Curran says most of the people in on the redesign -- including L.L's grandson and company president Leon Gorman -- had been wearing the boots since they were children. The thought of messing with a classic, as Coca-Cola did in 1985 when it lost $35 million on New Coke, was more than some could bear. "It was a risk. I'm sure some people lost sleep," Curran acknowledges.
The price of failure would be high for Bean. The privately held company is trying to update its image just enough to attract a younger crowd without alienating longtime customers and the outdoors set. It's planning to add three to five stores along the East Coast to its Freeport headquarters, including one in Tyson's Corner, Va., next year, expand its clothing line for businesswomen and children, and pump up its home furnishings catalog.
Mishandling its most recognizable product, designers knew, would be a public-relations nightmare.
Recalls Ryan McKelvey, then the Bean production manager: "I was sent New Coke articles by the president [of Bean]. There was an edict we would not have a New Coke. We were prepared not to bring it to the market if it wasn't right."
They found the key just an hour down the road in Lewiston, home of L&A; Molding Co.
Bean gave L&A;'s president, Oscar Cloutier, a wish list. He, in turn, contacted an Italian firm, Apego Stampi, which designed a mold that could be injected with rubber in 55 seconds rather than pressed by hand and baked, an expensive, labor-intensive process.
Then, they had to have someone invent the injectable rubber. That task fell to J. Von, a small firm in Leominster, Mass.
"We probably had 60 tests of the compound," says McKelvey, who replaced Cloutier when he retired in January. "I can't tell you how many versions we tried until we dialed in the right one."
Prototypes went on the feet of Bean employees, Maine guides, wildlife biologists, trail crews. "I took a pair hiking and took a thorn straight into my foot. The puncture resistance wasn't there," Curran says.
Designers tightened the shape of the heel to eliminate sock suck and gave the bottoms a synthetic lining to rid the boot of the clammy feeling that used to happen when sweat saturated the old cotton lining. They triple-stitched the bottom to new, waterproof leather tops.
There was one more technical problem -- how to get the famous Bean label to stick to the back of the boot. The new rubber compound resisted traditional glue.
L&A; put a note on a Web site at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a student messaged back with a formula that Cloutier mixed up in his garage. The label stuck.
Still not satisfied, L&A; and Apego revised the mold again to insert the label into the boot surface.
Finally, it was time for the rubber to meet the road.
"It went all the way to the top. When it came right down to it, it was up to Leon," says Curran of Bean's 63-year-old president, who tested the boots himself.
In January 1998, Gorman approved the boot bottom and bought 42 molds to cover everything from a women's size 5 Narrow AA to a men's 14 Wide EE.
L&A; began turning out the rubber bottoms in chocolate brown and navy last October, shipping them to the rocky coast of Maine, where Brunswick Manufacturing is putting the uppers and the bottoms together.
Since August, the first boots have been finding their way into the hands of Bean customers -- including that grizzled Maine Guide herself, Martha Stewart.
Stewart dashed a note off to Bean, saying she liked the boots, but wouldn't be parting with her old pair any time soon.
Tom Armstrong, a Bean vice president relieved by the initial reaction, doesn't mind the Coke comparison anymore.
"It's the same can of Coke," he says, "but it's a better product."