L.L. Bean promotes free shipping. By bus!

As part of its campaign to promote its new free shipping policy with no minimums, L.L. Bean is paying fares for bus riders in Boston this week.

Mary Knox Merrill / Staff / File
People board the SL4 Silver Line bus in the South End neighborhood of Boston on November 4, 2009. For this week only, 10 of Boston's busiest buses will waive fare fees, thanks to a promotion from the retailer L.L. Bean.

L.L. Bean has announced that, from now on, it will ship merchandise for free. This week only, the company threw bus-riding Bostonians in the deal, too.

Ten buses on Boston's busiest routes are wrapped in brown to look like an L.L. Bean package with “shipped for free” on the side in green letters. Anyone who gets on this week rides for free.

Other companies have sponsored free subway rides in Boston, such as Microsoft and ING, but only for three-hour periods, the Boston Globe reports. It's part of a larger trend of companies promoting themselves by giving away free, unexpected gifts. It's a strategy that the trend-tracking website, trendwatching.com, calls “random acts of kindness.”

For example: Interflora, a British florist, has sent flowers to Twitter users that seem sad, according to the trendwatching website. KLM, a Dutch airline, has given personalized gifts away to passengers in the airport.

“What's really driving these trends is the longing from consumers for what we call 'human brands' to be generous, understanding, or just helpful,” Henry Mason, of trendwatching.com, writes in an e-mail.

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Beyond Boston, L.L. Bean will promote free shipping with ads on TV, online, and in catalogs. For the Boston bus campaign, L.L. Bean is paying the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority double the amount of money that the buses would collect in fares, $180,000, plus another $36,000 for the ad wrappings, according to the Globe. The free fares last through April 2; the brown parcel getup will stay on for a month.

So, why did Bean, based in Freeport, Maine, pick Beantown for free rides?

“We wanted to stay in New England; we were looking for a city that was close to home where we would have a large impact,” says Laurie Brooks, a spokeswoman for L.L. Bean.

“It’s all about the experience,” says Evan Peter, the creative director at his San Francisco Bay area-based marketing firm. “You’re basically shipping them for free from their home to their work.”

Mr. Peter said that sponsoring subway, bus, and cab rides is nothing new, but that this is a clever campaign for L.L. Bean because it connects back to what it’s promoting: free shipping.

“There’s a solid connection to the brand,” he says. “They get off the bus and they go, ‘Well that was great, I got a free ride from L.L. Bean, and hey, they’re offering free shipping, I should go online.' ”

L.L. Bean even posted a You-Tube video (see below) of the bus campaign that is as feel-good as Bean’s flannel sheets on a winter night in Maine—there’s uplifting music, a smiley bus driver, and clips from grateful passengers.

“We’ve never had a free ride, there’s nothing free in this world,” says a young woman with a grinning toddler in a Sox cap.

“It was great because I actually almost missed the bus, and I saw it coming, ran for it. And then, it was free on top of catching it,” a blond, middle-aged woman says.

“I felt like I won the lottery," says a tall, bearded man with a friendly chuckle. "I love L.L. Bean. Thanks guys.”

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