Up Front: September 2010

Brand equity

Forged by a half-billion years of folding and faulting from continents colliding, heat so intense it lends credence to the concept of hell and pressure that stretched, twisted and thrust them to the surface to be scoured by glaciers, the rocks that ring Orr’s Island are still a work in progress, worn by waves that pound them, etched by ceaseless tides scratching their crevices. But the lawn in front of Seaforth, the old house whose wavy-glazed windows stare past pine and hemlock at those rocks and the sea beyond, is but a wink in time, a chore that has taken barely a century.

Built in 1898, the three-story, eight-bedroom house, capped by a widow’s walk, is exactly what you would imagine a summer place should be. My friend Doug Warren’s great-grandfather bought it and 25 acres for $6,500 in 1927. For nearly 20 years now, Jane and I have been frequent guests, and for all the delights coastal Maine has to offer, nothing is better than hanging around the house, lounging on the massive front porch, catching up with a small group of old friends we usually see only then, enjoying the long, leisurely, communally cooked meals and, in my case, engaging in afternoon bouts of cutthroat croquet. Since the lawn lies upon a thin skin of soil atop the rock, the field of battle — the contests’ epic aspect often depends on the kind and quantity of refreshment the participants partake — is heir to what the recent weather has wrought. This year, the fault was not in where but with what the game was played. The mallets, like stock traders of late, kept losing their heads.

Even before we arrived, four of a set’s six had snapped, most where the handle screwed in. The morning after we arrived, Doug drove into Freeport to buy another set. Before the day was out, one from it broke, soon followed by another. The surprising thing is that these were not cheap sets: Each cost about $135. And since they came from L.L. Bean — headquartered only a half-hour away — you would have thought they would have been made from close-grained maple, maybe from a tree in a Vermont forest that had for decades surrendered its sap for syrup. Such is the power of a brand’s image. But they were made in China, a fact, I confess, I took some comfort in, figuring that, if this be the quality of that country’s woodworking, North Carolina must surely win back its furniture industry — unless consumers were willing to settle for casegoods no more substantial than cardboard boxes.

On our last day at Seaforth, Doug and I braved the mob scene that is Freeport in summer — our outlet centers seem serene by comparison — to return the set he had bought. There was no problem. “You need a refund,” the clerk told him. Bean stands behind what it sells; the retailer has built a global reputation on that guarantee, which goes back to the time its founder peddled his first pair of hunting boots in 1912. But there is something more at stake here. There’s only one reason Leon L. Bean could make that promise: He believed in the quality of his product. To protect its brand, a business must do more than just flinch at its flaws — for example, the “billions” that came out “millions” in reporting BB&T’s assets in our July cover story or “Riverview” morphing into “Riverside” in two references in last month’s — it must do its best to make sure they are not repeated. There is great merit in making amends but not as much as in making something right in the first place. Only then can a brand hope to endure, like those rocks, regardless of what forces it faces.