Street wear entrepreneur Johnny Cupcakes on how his brand became a cult

He started out selling t-shirts from the back of his car. He is now a street wear entrepreneur who was been named by Business Week as the US’s No.1 Young Entrepreneur of the Year. He can boast having over 1000 fans so dedicated to his brand, they have had his trademark cupcake logo tattooed onto their bodies. So what makes Johnny Earle’s t-shirt company, Johnny Cupcakes, so successful?

Twenty-eight-year-old Earle started selling his Johnny Cupcakes t-shirts in Boston in 2001. His empire now spans right across the US, with five ‘bakeries’ across the country and a store in London, England.

The creation of his first store in Boston, and each store thereafter, has been a labour of love, with Earle focusing tirelessly on every minute detail to ensure that his customers get the best kind of experience from his stores.

This meant investing all of the money he had in vintage, industrial-sized bakery equipment –  from oversized refrigerators to bakery cases, baking racks and even a giant dough mixer. This was all used for the fitout of his first store, which, Earle admits, was a huge risk.

“It was important for me to build an experience. It was scary, because I was spending all the money I had, just to make people smile. In the business world, most people don’t think like that,” says Earle.

Before his  Los Angeles store opened, Earle confesses to running around, trying to think what else he could do to make the space look ‘different’.

He describes his LA store as “almost like stepping into the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory of t-shirts” and it is the jewel in what is now the multimillion-dollar t-shirt business crown.

“I teamed up with a company that built stuff for Disneyland and for Universal Studios, and had them help me bring these ideas I had to life. I had no idea what to do with these crazy ideas. I wanted [it] to be just like my other stores, a fashion bakery, except this time I wanted it to be on steroids,” he says.

Industrial pipes hanging from the walls look like they are dripping in frosting and there is a great wall of ovens. Even the tiled floors have been planned meticulously and fake frosting  can be found oozing over the industrial refrigerators.

“I just want to bring out people’s emotions through packaging and real design, and through creating experiences,” Earle says.

Even how his shop smelled became important. He bought a bunch of vanilla-scented car fresheners and placed them around his store, so when customers walk into his ‘bakery’ that only sells t-shirts, they can smell vanilla frosting.

He also attributes his success to his investment into unique packaging, so when you buy a t-shirt, instead of it coming in a plastic bag, it comes inside a little bakery box, with the Johnny Cupcakes logo embossed in foil on both sides. He also organised company tissue paper to complete the packaging experience.

Then there is his presence on social media. Earle has over 148,000 Facebook followers and almost 79,000 on Twitter.

“Instead of telling people that you know these products are on sale, or marked down, every other day, which is what a lot of people do, I try to avoid that and instead try and create a conversation on social media,” he says, explaining how he uses the channels. “So people feel like, well, they are actually having a conversation with me.

“Sharing little bits of my childhood, so that people can feel like kids again. That’s definitely been a big help with the brand.”

He continues to create experiences through his social media channels by starting conversations and creating events. Earle has even been known to put out a tweet asking customers to head down to a local ice-cream parlour with a Johnny Cupcakes t-shirt on, so that he can “treat everyone in the store to ice-cream”.

“I’ll think 10 people will show up and then I’ll look around the corner and there will be 400 people and I’ll buy them all ice-cream because they’re all customers.”

Engaging customers and keeping things personal are his top priorities, and it seems to be working, with Earle still dumbfounded at his unrelenting success.

“It’s unbelievable. I’ve seen over 1000 people with the logo tattooed on them. I’ve seen people camp out for two weeks to get a t-shirt and it still blows me away every time, every day,” he says.