8 tips for building a world-famous brand

“I started 16 businesses before the age of 16,” says Johnny Earle, founder of cult clothing empire Johnny Cupcakes and entrepreneur extraordinaire. He’s talking to us at OFFF Barcelona , Spain’s premiere three-day creative conference and a highlight of the annual design calendar.

“When I was 18 or 19 years old, I started Johnny Cupcakes as a joke,” he continues. “A goofy nickname from co-workers turned into a hobby of making cupcake-themed T-shirts to advertise a bakery that doesn’t exist.”

Fast-forward 16 years, and Earle’s hosted pop-up shops around the world and built a global following. Customers camped on the street for up to two weeks to be the first into his flagship Boston shop when he opened it in 2006, and the number of fans sporting Johnny Cupcakes tattoos tops a staggering 2,000.

boston 10yr-14

Earle wanted his retail stores to provide an unforgettable experience so he transformed them into bakeries

So what’s the secret of his success? How do you turn an idea into a phenomenally successful brand with a global reach? According to Earle, it’s all about the details. His shops, for example, look and smell like functioning bakeries: “We display limited-edition graphic tees in refrigerators and package our T-shirts in pastry boxes.”

“Our bakery aesthetic is so convincing that customers are usually convinced they are walking into a bakery expecting to get a cupcake.”

There’s also his cult Johnny Cupcakes logo, a “badass” allusion to a skull and crossbones, with a cupcake replacing the skull. We caught up with Earle at OFFF 2016, ahead of his talk, to find out more. Read on for his top tips on launching a new idea – and pro advice on how to build brand hysteria.

Girth Baker

Johnny Cupcakes T-shirts poke fun at pop culture, substituting known references with cupcakes – as with this tee, Girth Baker

  1. Little things yield big results

“The small details, including keeping it personal, are the things that separate one experience from another,” says Earle. “These things not only help build brand loyalty, but they keep work fun, and they’re things that everyone should do to show appreciation to their customers. For example: handwritten notes; events for your community of customers; and using small elements of surprise or design to show your uniqueness to the world.”

  1. Don’t be afraid to fail

“Everyone has brilliant ideas, but so many people don’t even move forward as they are afraid of failing,” he explains. “I fail every day, but I look at the failures as learning lessons and puzzle pieces.”

  1. Travel when you can

“Travel opens up your mind and give you perspective,” says Earle. “It also helps build your network of friends, clients and customers.”

  1. Have fun

“Life is short,” he reflects, “so don’t lose track of that sense of wonderment that attracted you to your unordinary journey. Keep positive, you’ve got this!”

  1. Design a cult logo

Earle crafted the Johnny Cupcakes logo in his late teens, using MS Paint. “The struggle was real. However, the reason I think this logo has been so successful is because of its simplicity, and balance of cute and badass. It causes curiosity while also making strangers smile.”

johnny classic

These days Earle sells more than just T-shirts – you can also pick up Johnny Cupcakes shorts, sweaters, jewellery, undergarments, pins and more

  1. Use the right tools

“The designers who I collaborate with tend to use Adobe Illustrator,” says Earle. “I’m more of an ideas guy, and my software weapon of choice is Things, which is a list-making app, as well as Adobe’s Premiere Pro for video-editing when working on my YouTube channel. I’m also partial to my 0.38 Muji pen and a dirty napkin.”

  1. Find a good work-life balance

Today, Earle’s biggest challenge is finding more time in the day, and learning to prioritise ideas and projects. “The biggest hurdle that I’ve had to overcome has been learning to find a good work-life balance,” he reflects.

“I once had a dream of opening shops around the world. Since accomplishing that dream, I now have new dreams, such as spending more time with my loved ones, learning more magic tricks, playing competitive ping pong and eventually starting a family. I’ve also been making more time to travel to speak on brand loyalty and entrepreneurship.”

  1. Tear down the wall

“The main message of my talk at OFFF 2016 is to do more of what makes you happy,” he adds. “This is important because many of us build an invisible wall in our own heads. I’m here to tell everyone that the wall is made up of marshmallows and opportunities. You should eat that wall for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Johnny Earle is speaking at OFFF 2016 on Saturday 28 May, at 4.25pm on the Roots stage. Fans of Johnny Cupcakes should keep an eye on the site, Instagram and Twitter this summer for a special T-shirt release every Friday at 12noon EDT.

Big Kid Shooter

Earle started by selling T-shirts from the boot of his car, and later from a suitcase while touring the US with his band On Broken Wings

watch product shots-9

Constant reinvention lies at the heart of the brand’s success. Collaborations like this one with G-Shock keep Johnny Cupcakes fresh


Just don’t expect a cupcake every time you enter a store…