Johnny Earle is living the dream: he’s in business with his lifelong role model. “When I was in high school selling itching powder and stink bombs, Bart Simpson was the guy I looked up to,” says Earle. “He was always my dude.”
Earle is the 31-year-old founder and CEO of Johnny Cupcakes, the limited edition T-shirt company that made hipster-whimsy a thing. Two years ago, Earle received an email from the consumer-products division of 20th Century Fox, which had heard about the company’s devoted fan base, bakery-themed stores, and creative partnerships with such cartoon royalty as Looney Tunes and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Fox suggested a collaboration to commemorate the 25th anniversary of The Simpsons. “At first I thought it was a prank,” says Earle. “I couldn’t believe they were reaching out to us.”
Working closely with Fox and Gracie Films, which produces the show, Earle and his team planned, designed, and produced more than a dozen hybrid Simpsons-Cupcake-products, including T-shirts, socks and wallets to be bundled in limited-edition faux cupcake mix-boxes. Though this is a traditional licensing deal (Johnny Cupcakes pays royalties), “their marketing team has been more than normally involved with us,” says Earle. For example, representatives of Fox and Gracie will attend the release party on May 31 at Johnny Cupcakes’ Los Angeles store. A costumed Homer Simpson will tag along with them. (Merchandise will be available at all five Johnny Cupcakes stores and on the company’s website. As with most Cupcakes releases, expect lines and people camping out.)
For a guy like Earle--who one year tracked down all his employees’ favorite childhood toys and presented them as holiday gifts--getting a call from The Simpsons was the equivalent of a Silicon Valley CEO getting a call from Mark Zuckerberg.
That comparison runs deeper than you’d think. I would argue that Facebook and The Simpsons are the two greatest--and possibly last--mass-market phenomena of the past quarter century. My own kids grew up watching The Simpsons, identifying first with Santa’s Little Helper, then with Maggie, then with Bart and finally (thankfully) with Lisa. My husband and I are rapidly aging away from Marge and Homer and toward Grandpa Abe.
Similarities between The Simpsons and Johnny Cupcakes are more attitudinal and aesthetic. “We tie together almost too perfectly,” says Earle. “We both use bold lines and colorful graphics--everything a little bit brighter and chunkier. We both pay homage to pop culture. Homer is this clueless character who eats a lot of donuts. Our mascot is the Big Kid, who eats a lot of cupcakes.
“We’re in our own little cartoon worlds,” says Earle.
I would suggest an additional similarity: both those worlds are abuzz with entrepreneurship. Springfield may be the most startup-happy town in America, from Ned Flander’s Leftorium to Uncle Moe’s Family Feedbag to Marge’s Pretzel Wagon to Lisa’s social network, SpringFace. Seemingly every few episodes, the comfortably employed Homer is out selling something new: plowing services; elephant rides, sugar, tonic, trampoline sessions, bacon grease. He even sold his Internet startup to Bill Gates--sort of. Earle’s experiences--though less varied--are also pretty colorful.
Beyond the thrill of working with one of his favorite shows, Earle says he hopes the partnership will beckon new fans into the Cupcake fold. “A collaboration is like a cover song,” he says. “Like when you hear a band you don’t know doing a cover song on the radio. It takes you down memory lane, so you go to iTunes and buy the album. And sometimes you fall in love with that new band.
“Someone comes into our store because they love The Simpsons and they get introduced to our brand,” says Earle. “It’s a great cross-pollination.”