Johnny Earle grew his brand using a mix of clever packaging, personal connection, and collaboration. The opening keynoter at ASAE’s 2019 Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference says associations can apply these same techniques to their marketing efforts.
Associations need a combination of memorable experience, design, and human-to-human connection to create effective, brand-sustaining marketing, Johnny Earle, founder and CEO of the apparel company Johnny Cupcakes, told attendees during Thursday’s opening keynote at ASAE’s 2019 Marketing, Membership, and Communications Conference.
“I love digital and try to do as much as I can digitally,” said Earle, who used viral marketing to grow his brand. “But when you can marry a digital experience with a real-life experience or relationship, something magical happens. Forget B-to-B. It is all about H-to-H: human to human. Remind people who you are, your background. Share your stories.”
Earle’s business sells T-shirts and related apparel emblazoned with Johnny Cupcakes designs. The company styles itself like a bakery, packaging T-shirts in pastry boxes for customers.
“My brand is strange, my concept is strange, but strange is good,” Earle said. “Strange is unique. It gets people talking, and it separates you from the riffraff.”
In order for associations to better market their brand, they need to focus in on what is special about what they offer. “I challenge all of you to challenge your teams to come up with 12 things that separate you from everybody else,” he said. “People have too many options. Why would they take a risk with you? Let this haunt you. Let this inspire you.”
Achieving Viral Marketing Success
For Earle, viral marketing starts with making connections. He wants anyone who supports his brand to feel like it’s their birthday. To help with this, his team collaborates, embraces creativity, and celebrates the good.
“Anytime we have a reason to celebrate, we are going to do so through the art of T-shirts. You don’t have to have a T-shirt brand to do this,” Earle said. “Rather than you sending out a card to your clients around Christmas time that’s going to be lost with the 300 cards they’re receiving from everybody else, why not send out a card on a random day?”
He suggested picking a nonstandard holiday as a connection point. “If I received a card from your office around Halloween, and everyone in your office was dressed up as zombies, I would never forget your organization, and it’s probably the only Halloween card I would have received,” Earle said.
And when connecting with people in interesting ways, don’t be afraid to fail. “My only superpower is I just don’t care about failing,” said Earle, who created 16 different businesses by the time he was 16. “I look at failures as experiments, and experimenting is how we grow. It forces you to think strategically.”
From one of his early childhood business failures—selling whoopee cushions to classmates—Earle learned that selling excess inventory at deep discounts could devalue your merchandise, so it was important to find alternative ways to deal with it.
He adapted this lesson to social media, using extras for giveaways. For example, Earle might use Instagram to tell people he’s hiding near a McDonalds and the first 10 people who find him win a shirt. “If you got a shirt from a little guy with a beard behind a dumpster behind McDonald’s, there is no way on earth that you would not share that story every time you wore that shirt,” he said. “So, for me to take a financial loss to giveaway products in a unique way, I’m going to get hundreds of thousands of dollars of word-of-mouth marketing and social media marketing for free.”
When looking for viral spread, design matters too. “We use a lot of fun packaging. It helps people to feel celebrated and gives them a reason to post on Instagram,” Earle said. “Good packaging does not get thrown away. What it does is it acts as a miniature billboard.”
Collaboration is also important for associations hoping to improve their brand’s reach and boost loyalty. “Collaborations are a great way to cross-pollinate, get new customers, and utilize one another’s marketing,” Earle said. His company collaborated with Hello Kitty, who posted a picture of a Hello Kitty-themed Johnny Cupcakes T-shirt for its 10 million Facebook followers.
“We generated a quarter of a million dollars in less than 24 hours with zero dollars spent on advertising or marketing,” Earle said. “The best part about that wasn’t even the money. It was the cross pollination. Other people’s customers learning about what we do and vice versa. Those Hello Kitty customers that are now coming to Johnny Cupcakes, they might be customers for life if we give them a great customer service experience.”