5 Ways to Be Creative Like Johnny Cupcakes

Here’s a secret of how to be creative in your business…name your business something that you don’t even sell! Johnny Cupcakes has nothing to do with cupcakes. They don’t even sell food items. I saw the Johnny Cupcakes logo about a dozen times before I actually figured out what they do. But I’ll save you some time…they sell T-shirts. I attended a presentation by Johnny Earle, the founder of Johnny Cupcakes, and he is hands down one of the most creative guys around. I’d like to share a few things I learned about creativity…but not about cupcakes.

Earle started in 2001 selling shirts out of a suitcase while he toured with his heavy metal band. Now Johnny Cupcakes is a multi-million dollar business with 40+ employees and multiple retail locations. At openings and product launches, hundreds of customers show up and the line often wraps around the block. At the heart of Earle’s success is CREATIVITY.

Here are a few examples of how he mixes things up:

  • Packaging. Packaging for their T-shirts have included a cupcake box, an ice cream carton, push up popsicle package, takeout Chinese food container, fake VCR case, playing cards box…you get the idea. He’s been known to write personal notes on orders or even randomly include batteries or a doll’s head in the box. Yes, a doll’s head. He views each order as an experience for the customer, and the packaging is a big driver of that experience. Earle’s believes that customers talk about these kind of strange experiences and become evangelists of his brand.

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  • Retail store experience. Johnny Cupcakes’ retail stores are another huge part of the crazy experience. The stores are designed to look like bakeries with shirts in glass bakery display cases and vintage baking equipment as decor. They often have people stand in line to buy actual cupcakes, only to find out after 45 minutes of waiting that there are no cupcakes to be had. On April Fool’s Day one year, they switched one of the stores over to an actual bakery and sold cupcakes all day instead of shirts. If someone came to purchase a shirt they wouldn’t sell it to them — because for that one day they were a cupcake store.

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  •  Scarcity. Product scarcity is another tool Earle uses effectively. He runs limited edition prints of shirts that create a frenzied demand. At their retail stores, they sold a limited-time breakfast shirt and the only offered it during breakfast hours. If you showed up at 2 pm, you couldn’t buy the breakfast shirt — just like the fast food places that cut off breakfast 5 minutes before you get there.
  • Cross promotions. Johnny Cupcakes does cross promotions with various other brands to create unique products and T-shirts designs. They’ve done cross promotions with The Simpsons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Looney Tunes. When they posted on Facebook a promotion with Hello Kitty, their website crashed. Not every business can partner with Hello Kitty and Looney Tunes, but there are local brands or personalities you could do cross promotions with.
  • Brand identity. Johnny Cupcakes has created fierce brand loyalty — to the point that people even get tattoos of the Johnny Cupcakes logo. They foster this loyalty by creating a unique and unpredictable brand in a consistent way. Unpredictability and consistency may seem to be opposites, but Johnny Cupcakes has consistently been unpredictable, unique, and bizarre — creating a solid brand identify that people can rely on.
  • Attention to detail. Some of the best ways to leverage creativity is attention to detail. Johnny Cupcakes uses every little detail of their store, packaging, and the actual T-shirts to create a unique customer experience. Attention to detail doesn’t necessarily mean higher costs. It just takes more effort.

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“Make your customers feel like it’s their birthday every time they make a purchase.” – Johnny Earle

How can you apply these learnings to your small business?

Every business can surprise their customers and every business can have excellent attention to detail. Creativity is not copying what Johnny Cupcakes has done. It’s coming up with your own ideas. Things that will be consistent with your brand and will bring a smile to your customer’s face.

Here are a few creative ideas you could use in a frozen yogurt shop:

  1. Tape a $5 bill to the inside of one of the yogurt cups with a note that says “Enjoy one on me” and signed by the owner. Then put it back in the stack up cups for a lucky customer to find.
  2. Use collectible spoons. Find unique spoons that people will want to take home. Switch out colors and varieties so people will keep coming back for the next spoon. Orange Leaf stores used to melt spoons into a bracelet for kids to wear and take home. I know my kids wanted to go there just for the spoons.
  3. Impromptu pizza party. Randomly bring in pizza for everyone in your shop. Just give it away for free. If there is a pizza shop near you, buy it from them and leverage cross promotion. Maybe they’ll be willing to do an impromptu frozen yogurt party at their shop.
  4. Unique toppings and flavors. What if you served chocolate covered grass hoppers as a topping. Even if nobody bought them, they would definitely tell their friends about it. You could switch out a strange topping or flavor every week to keep the intrigue alive.
  5. Create a unique store experience. The boom of frozen yogurt stores has resulted in a cookie cutter approach to designing and running self-serve frozen yogurt shops. Don’t be afraid to break the mold and be DIFFERENT. Use details to be creative: floor mats, flavor names, decorations in the bathroom, staff T-shirts, napkins, etc. Customers spend 5-20 minutes in your store – make their visit bigger than just eating frozen yogurt. Make it an experience that they’ll tell friends about.

Being different is better than being better.

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