Johnny Cupcakes: A T-Shirt Startup That Gained a Cult Following Through Unique Marketing and Word of Mouth

MakersValley Blog | Johnny Cupcakes: A T-Shirt Startup That Gained a Cult Following Through Unique Marketing and Word of Mouth
Tashfia Parvez

Tashfia Parvez

A Little History

Johnny Cupcakes was founded in 2001 by entrepreneur Johnny Earle when he first started wearing T-shirts around his office with “Johnny Cupcakes” printed on them. It was a nickname given to him by co-workers, and he had only ordered these T-shirts as a joke. But they soon gained fame among his colleagues, family members, and other acquaintances, and he started selling them out of the trunk of his ‘89 Toyota Camry. The T-shirts were so successful that he decided to sell more or give them away to musicians and fans as he toured the country with his heavy-metal band, lending the shirt design’s popularity more momentum.

Simplicity at Its Best

An interesting thing about JC is that despite its huge success, it has always kept its product assortment low in both width and depth. It is known for T-shirts, so other than a few random joggers, or accessories like hats, that’s all it really sells in stores and online. It changes designs often and carries low inventory for each unique piece, making most of its merchandise limited edition. This not only helps it sell out of merchandise consistently, but also makes its T-shirts highly sought after due to being seen as somewhat of a collector’s item. Fun fact: a customer in Belgium owns more than 700 JC T-shirts!

MakersValley Blog | brand logo | brand collaboration Photo taken from Johnny Cupcakes Instagram

Is the Logo Everything?

The brand’s insignia – a cupcake and crossbones (a play on the classic skull & bones) is so famous that more than 2,000 fans have tattooed it on themselves. The most basic t-shirt available in JC stores and online at all times has just the logo printed on it. Earle has also had successful collaborations with other brands and made pop culture references through his t-shirts, simply by taking famous characters or logos, and combining/replacing them with a cupcake. People will buy JC merchandise just to show off this logo, and that’s rare when it’s not a luxury line with a status symbol brand mark.

Smaller Ad Budget

The success behind Johnny Cupcakes (JC) lies in its stellar customer service. Many companies claim to put their customers first, but JC puts its money where its mouth is, literally. Earle has said that he barely invests any money in advertising dollars. Instead, he uses that budget to cater to each customer, personalizing their shopping experience. There is a reason why his brand has gained a cult following over the years, so much so that customers will camp outside his stores for up to two weeks before a new limited edition line drops. Needless to say, his brand has tremendous word of mouth. That plus social media is promotion enough for Johnny Cupcakes.

Making the Customers Smile

For Earle, it’s always been about investing in his customers and getting ROI in the form of brand loyalty and word of mouth. He makes sure that the entire buying journey for a JC customer delivers a unique experience. This happens in a number of ways, starting with store design.

MakersValley Blog | brand loyalty | customer engagement
Photo taken from Johnny Cupcakes Instagram

All JC stores are designed and decorated to look like an old school cupcake bakery. They stock T-shirts in colorful pastel ovens, use air vents to fill the space with cupcake scents, and serve the products in little cake boxes that read “freshly baked” (that customers are less likely to throw away) instead of clothing bags. Curious shoppers want to visit this store just for the sake of experiencing it.

For online customers, Earle includes little perks or surprises in their boxes like free overnight shipping, rare trading cards of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Spiderman, or sometimes even an extra T-shirt. The thought process behind this is that Earle wants to make his customers feel like a kid on their birthday or Christmas, when they didn’t know what to expect, but they were excited to open the gifts. He says that by personalizing their purchase his brand is being loyal to the customers, and in return they will be inclined to shop loyally with JC.

Even when he is not making a sale, Earle makes sure to constantly engage and interact with customers. He once visited Los Angeles and tweeted that he would be at an ice cream parlor, and if customers stopped by in their JC T-shirt, Earle would treat them with free ice cream. Hundreds showed up wearing the iconic shirts!

Keeping It Light-Hearted

MakersValley Blog | pop-up events | customer reviews
Photo taken from Johnny Cupcakes Instagram

Earle has always been a prankster, and he lets that shine through his brand. To this day, his store has only sold actual cupcakes one time, and that was April Fool’s Day. There have been some customers who felt tricked by his store’s bakery disguise, leading to bad reviews online that discouraged people from going in. Earle decided to print one of these reviews and put it on the back of some of the t-shirts, highlighting the reviewer’s grammatical and spelling errors.

Aside from a few stores around the country and online sales, Earle sells a lot of merchandise through themed pop-up stores strategically placed in various cities. One of them was called the Suitcase Tour where JC sold T-shirts out of an actual suitcase. Another was called the Coffin Tour and was Halloween themed. Here, Earle actually hid in life sized coffins and surprised customers by jumping out of it.

Unique designs, brand loyalty, and unique marketing campaigns are what have made Johnny Cupcakes such a success story. At every step of the buyer’s journey, JC keeps customers on their toes. Today’s consumers want to express their individualism through what they wear, and they want to feel like a part of something exclusive, through both product and experience. Johnny Cupcakes delivers that 100 times over.

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