I have an extensive collection of Johnny Cupcakes T-shirts—not because the shirts are collectibles (they're available anywhere), but because I love Johnny Earle, the brand's designer and founder.

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He worked at a store called Newbury Comics as a teenager, and his co-workers there cycled through a number of colorful nicknames for him. One day, they dubbed him "Johnny Cupcakes." And the name stuck!

Johnny's rise to success as an entrepreneur started because his band at the time needed tees. Embracing his "Johnny Cupcakes" moniker, he created the now-famous "cupcake and crossbones" design. The shirts sold out quickly, and the brand was born.

Johnny's designs reflect his enthusiasm for pop culture and his fun, energetic personality. That same personality comes through at every step of the customer journey.

His brick-and-mortar store looks like a whimsical bakery. His colorful website includes fun design elements and models of all types. T-shirts arrive in a branded bakery-style box that, when opened, reveals branded tissue paper and laptop stickers (as well as your shirt).

His dedication to creating a one-of-a-kind brand experience has paid dividends in the form of cult-like brand loyalty—a kind of brand hysteria that involves mile-long lines and brand fans getting his logo tattooed onto their bodies.

I invited Johnny to Marketing Smarts to talk about how he built a brand that inspires such longstanding loyalty, and how he's taken that brand from the B2C space into B2B territory.

We recorded this episode of Marketing Smarts in our MarketingProfs PRO Facebook group. If you're a PRO member, join us there for livestream videos and other exclusive content!

Check out this video of our live Marketing Smarts recording session with Johnny Cupcakes (or download the audio file—whichever you prefer).


Here are just a few highlights from our conversation.

Make people a part of your brand experience (00:00): "Listen, I make T-shirts. Anybody can go buy a T-shirt for a fraction of the price online or at a chain store or at the mall. Why is somebody going to buy a thirty-six or forty-dollar Johnny Cupcakes T-shirt? And why will they come back and buy it over and over?

"[For] the designs, obviously, tapping into nostalgia, pop culture. The hidden surprises that you might get with your shirt, inside of your shirt, the stories that come attached with them. And just being transparent and not being this soulless, corporate logo, but letting people in on the ride, the ups and downs of the journey.

"When you do that, people understand a little bit more of what they're getting and they feel a part of it. As they should, because I would not be here without these customers."

Be the one who tells your story: talk about your brand's successes and failures (27:48) "For a while, I've been doing speaking engagements. I got into it because there were other speakers talking about my brand as a case study. There were people writing books and featuring my brand in these different marketing books, which I thought was great. And it was free publicity.

And then, as I got older, I was like, "Wait a minute, people should hear it from me. I should go out and let people know these experiments that I'm doing, whether they fail or become huge successes.' With some of those speaking engagements, some companies or organizations will ask if we can make a special edition shirt for them.

"So that's one of the add-ons to my virtual speaking and my physical, in-person speaking; [it's] 'we will work with you to make a special edition design and we'll surprise all the attendees at the end.' It's like a miniature, teeny-tiny Oprah Winfrey moment where 'you get a T-shirt and you get a T-shirt and you get a T-shirt.' And we handle all the fulfillment so everybody working from home during the pandemic gets a surprise sent to them in the mail.

To attract brand partners for collaborations, build demand among end-users(29:00): "There are some places that don't know about my speaking engagements or my brand, but they want to hire us and we act as a mini design agency, a mini creative agency. And we handle the design, the production, and all that.

"With Gillette, we worked with them on building some more loyal followers to sign up for their shave club program. And we brought back their mascot from the 1950s, Sharpie the Parrot. The only way you could get one of these shirts is if you signed up for the Gillette shave club program.

"We did this with House of Blues and we also did a really big project for Nutter Butter for their anniversary. We did special edition shirts and we designed a few pop up shops. It was a blast. So for me it was a blast, because my team and I got to use another person's brand as a playground."

To learn more, visit JohnnyCupcakes.com. You can also follow Johnny on Twitter at @JohnnyCupcakes

Johnny and I talked about much more, so be sure to listen to the entire show, which you can do above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!

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