Think Different: Lessons from Johnny Cupcakes
BY Burt Helm
The funky apparel brand gets buzz by being weird. Really, really weird
Johnny Earle began his life as an entrepreneur selling candy and whoopie cushions to classmates. In his early 20s, he sold homemade buttons and scarves cut out of discount fleece. Today, he is better known as the founder of Johnny Cupcakes, a cheeky apparel brand known for its ironic t-shirts, audacious store designs, and surprising publicity stunts. On April 12, he shot a series of rapidfire tips at attendees of Inc.’s annual GrowCo conference in New Orleans—telling the crowd the many ways he grabs attention for his brand, and why spending big money on superficial appearances can pay off in profound ways.
Here are a few excerpts from his mile-a-minute speech.
“I never took any classes. I just took risks—and learned from my mistakes.” Earle recounted how, even as he was still living at home with his mom, he splurged on leasing store space on Boston’s posh, highly-trafficked Newbury Street. Then he doubled down, decorating his store with unconventional bakery cases, industrial mixers, and car fresheners that smelled like frosting—all a play on his brand’s offbeat name. “I decided to spend all the money I had to create an experience,” Earle said. “If I spent it on inexpensive stuff, it would have looked like every other store.”
“Good packaging never gets thrown away. It acts as a miniature billboard.” The brand’s packaging is as offbeat as its stores. Earrings come in windowpane bakery boxes, like an Entenmann’s coffee cake. T-shirts are sold in what looks like a carton of donut holes. The Johnny Cupcakes logo is stamped—in shiny foil—on the size label. “The foil triples the cost,” said Earle. “But it also triples the experience.”
“Sometimes I’ll put batteries in orders. It’s weird. But maybe the next time they walk by a store display of batteries...they might talk about the time this weird guy Johnny Cupcakes put batteries in their t-shirt order.” Batteries aren't the only thing Johnny Cupcakes has been known to randomly put in mail-order t-shirt boxes. They’ve thrown in everything from a Snickers bar, to a $20 bill, to a dolls head. “It gets people talking. They will tweet about it, and they will post it on Instagram,” said Earle. “It costs time, it costs more money, but it gets people talking and we save money by not advertising.”
“When you’re using social media, don’t just use it to put stuff on sale all the time.” Do anything too often on Twitter, and it stops being cool and interesting, Earle said. What’s more, revenue falls because customers become unwilling to pay full price. Instead, Johnny Cupcakes uses Twitter to offer special items, run contests, and promote meetups in the real world. “I’ll post on Twitter, ‘show up at this ice cream place with your Johnny Cupcakes shirt on, and I’ll buy you ice cream,’” said Earle. “Little things like that make a huge difference.”
“Luck has nothing to do with it. Stop making excuses and start making stuff.” Added Earle: “I believe real happiness is doing what you love.”