Johnny Cupcakes Hits A Sweet Spot With Marketers
By the time he was 16, Johnny Earle had run more than a dozen amateur businesses, from lemonade stands, yard sales and neighborhood haunted houses to doing magic tricks at kids’ birthday parties. A lifelong prankster with a quirky bent and a love of life, after high school Earle decided to flex his already-experienced entrepreneurial muscle. He made pens to sell at craft fairs and fleece scarves to keep friends warm during Boston winters, but he found he had a knack for making imaginative t-shirts that poked fun at pop culture and, more importantly, he was golden at driving pent-up consumer demand to purchase them.
He now speaks to groups around the world on how to start, grow and reinvent their businesses and create a blueprint for brand loyalty.
Earle shared his inspired marketing approach during Tuesday’s general session presentation at The PPAI Expo.
Playing off of his nickname, Johnny Cupcakes, Earle launched his first retail store in Boston 10 years ago, with the look of an old-fashioned bakery complete with industrial refrigerators and shirts displayed on baking racks. He packaged his t-shirts in cake boxes—and that was just the beginning.
Today his multimillion-dollar brand, Johnny Cupcakes, is known the world over and Earle has been featured in dozens of publications including Wired, Forbes and USA Today. What sets him apart from other t-shirt sources isn’t necessarily the product—although his designs are highly creative. It’s the experience he’s after. “You have to give people a reason to do business with you,” he told his audience. “It’s all about the experience.”
Now with three retail locations in Massachusetts as well as an online store, Earle has taken his business’ bakery theme practically to infinity with every conceivable play on the concept. But what’s really built his business is his ability to create a huge demand for his pieces priced at $35-$40 and sometimes up to $75—well above a typical t-shirt. The family-run company releases a new t-shirt design every Friday and when the day is over, that design is gone forever.
Dressed in cropped trousers and a Johnny Cupcakes-logoed t-shirt, Earle shared his success story accompanied by a slide deck of eye-catching images as he encouraged listeners to rethink the level of creativity they are putting into their businesses.
“People thrive off of new experiences,” he said, adding how surprised he was to find out that promotional products distributors, overall, have little to differentiate them. “Everybody has access to the same products?” he asked incredulously, suggesting listeners consider how to do special edition products that not everyone can get. “There’s a lot of room to grow in this industry,” he said.
He also emphasized the importance of packaging. “Packaging can make or break your customers’ experience,” he explained, adding that sometimes buyers purchase a product because they want to keep the package. “Good packaging does not get thrown away—it acts as a miniature billboard.”
Johnny Cupcakes t-shirts have been sold in frosting cans scented to match the label, tucked inside ice cream tubs and rolled inside Push-Up frozen treat tubes.
He’s also marketed his shirts from ice cream trucks that serve as pop-up shops on wheels. What took this marketing tactic over the top was that the trucks moved frequently and the locations were not publicized until the last minute. “We wanted our customers to chase us,” he said.
“I know that everyone has amazing ideas, brilliant ideas, but so many are afraid of failing so they won’t even take that first step,” said Earle. “I’ve been able to fail, and fail fast, which has allowed me to learn to find my passion and support my family. Remember, if you are not failing, you are not learning!”