The True Tale of Johnny Cupcakes

Posted on by Beth Negus Viveiros
The "Breakfast Special" shirt was only available until noon.
The “Breakfast Special” shirt was only available until noon.

If you go to Johnny Cupcakes’ Boston store looking for baked goods, you’ll be disappointed. But, if you go in looking for t-shirts and an immersive brand experience, you won’t go away hungry.

At HubSpot’s Inbound conference in Boston this week, t-shirt entrepreneur Johnny Cupcakes himself—a.k.a. Johnny Earle—shared ideas on how to create a brand people will feel so passionately about they’ll get tattoos of the logo.

“Life is short, and people’s attention spans are even shorter,” says Earle, who encouraged attendees to search for what makes their brand unique. “Your brand DNA is your story.”

Earle says he started 16 businesses before his 16th birthday, ranging from lemonade stands and yard sales (often without parental permission), to doing magic tricks for birthday parties and reselling whoopee cushions or candy purchased in bulk from Oriental Trading to other kids at school.

“Many of them failed, but I learned a lot,” he says.

He had his first foray into t-shirts after doing an internship at a t-shirt shop while still in school. The nickname Johnny Cupcakes came later, from coworkers at Massachusetts-based pop culture retail chain Newbury Comics. As a joke, he made up a Johnny Cupcakes t-shirt, and people started asking about it. The cupcake and skull and crossbones motif had instant appeal—“guys thought it was funny and girls thought it was cute.”

 Johnny Earle, a.k.a. Johnny Cupcakes
Johnny Earle, a.k.a. Johnny Cupcakes

He started selling shirts at craft fairs and farmers market, and has grown the company—founded in 2001—into an online business with a flagship retail store on Boston’s Newbury Street and pop-up shops around the country.

While the business has experimented with selling wholesale, Earle prefers direct sales, citing the ability to better control the customer experience.

Experience is a big part of the brand—the retail store is designed to resemble a bakery (“I trick hungry people for a living,” he jokes), with shirts displayed on vintage pastry racks and bakery ovens. T-shirts are packaged in pastry shop-style boxes, and the smell of vanilla frosting (courtesy of strategically placed scented air fresheners) fills the air.

The packaging is essential, he says. “Good packaging does not get thrown away.” It gets kept, and continues to share your brand message long after the purchase.

Johnny Cupcakes releases new products every Friday at noon. A calendar of new shirt releases—keyed to events like sports seasons or holidays—is planned out, with room left for reactive marketing to capitalize on current events or trends. For example, when Drake’s “Hotline Bling” song was big, a “Cupcake Bling” shirt was created.

Many of the special releases are very limited. A “breakfast special” shirt was only available before 12 pm on the day of release. To make it more festive, actual breakfast was also served. It was fun for most people—customers who arrived at 12:01 pm or later weren’t able to purchase the shirt, and didn’t leave happy, particularly if they had driven a long distance to snag the exclusive. Still, the branding value of such ventures is incredibly valuable.

“We lost some customers that day, but chances are that at breakfast time, they’re going to share that experience for the rest of their lives,” he said.

 Hello Kitty likes cupcakes too.
Hello Kitty likes cupcakes too.

Other than the very rare print ad or billboard, Johnny Cupcakes does the vast majority of its marketing through shared experiences like the “breakfast special,” or the time he tweeted out that he’d be at a particular location for 20 minutes, and to meet him there for a “Where’s Waldo” styled “Where’s Johnny” shirt.

“If you find me at a dumpster behind McDonald’s, any time you wear that t-shirt, you’re going to share that story,” he said.

Earle admitted that retail is a challenging business, but that his “short attention span” and desire to try new things makes it a good fit for his sensibilities.

“Retail is a suicide mission,” he said. “It changes by the second and it’s a tricky business.”

The brand has expanded into the B2B space with custom printing, offering design services to customers who order a minimum of 200 shirts to give out to customers and employees. Companies Johnny Cupcakes have created custom shirts for include Gillette, House of Blues and Goldwell Kerasilk hair products. A side benefit of the custom shirts is that delighted recipients of the shirts often share them on social media, providing cross promotion for all brands involved.

Johnny Cupcakes has also partnered with numerous brands for licensing deals. A partnership with Sanrio to create Hello Kitty shirts led to a quarter of a million dollars in sales in less than 24 hours, nearly crashing the Cupcakes website. Another project with Nickelodeon to cross-promote a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie included live appearances of the hard shelled heroes at Johnny Cupcake’s since-closed Carnaby Street shop in London, and actual TMNT themed cupcakes for customers.

The Simpsons' shirt packaging
The Simpsons’ shirt packaging

Earle noted that the brand learned from an earlier collaboration to create Simpsons themed merchandise. The products—packaged creatively in Simpson’s themed cake boxes (“flavors” included Krusty Kakes and Homer’s Bacon Batch)—sold out quickly to loyal Johnny Cupcakes fans. That was great, but the opportunity to introduce the brand to new fans who loved the Simpsons was lost, because the time of the licensing agreement was short. For future partnerships, like a more recent Power Rangers promotion, a longer deal was negotiated to allow for reprinting of popular shirts.

While the brand has had “bakeries” in other cities such as London and Los Angeles, today, Johnny Cupcakes only has one retail location, the Boston flagship. Its retail presence around the world now consists of pop-up shops around the world. It has run over 400 pop-ups so far, at homes, businesses and even backyard barbeques. The vast majority have cost the company nothing to rent space—typically, people host for the chance to interact with a brand they love. The weirder the location, the better, said Earle, because it feels more authentic.

For early October Halloween-themed pop-ups in Los Angeles and Boston, the brand sent out 15,000 postcard invitations to fans on each coast. The postcards looked like tickets, and customized printing was used to make the address look more fun—recipients were invited as “XXX the Vampire Slayer,” rather than just their usual name.

Earle said he has no idea what kind of response they’ll get, noting that if no one shows up, they’re in trouble—and if everyone shows up, they’re definitely in trouble.

He encouraged Inbound attendees to interact in real life and make connections, asking everyone to take a moment to turn around and high-five a few of the people sitting near them.

“Meet strangers—unless they drive a white van.”

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