Johnny Cupcakes’ recipe for success breaks the mold, but it’s a great case study for events searching for new ways to “surprise and delight” their guests.
Johnny Earle (his actual last name), isn’t an event strategist. And even though his name may suggest so, he’s not even a baker.
Almost 20 years ago, Johnny created a t-shirt brand from scratch. His stores look and smell like bakeries, but instead of pastries and treats in his refrigerated cases, he has culinary-themed t-shirts.
His ovens are purely for show. And the smell of sweet frosting when you walk into his shops? Just scented air fresheners being pumped through the vents.
When his loyal customers walk out with a specialized shirt, it’s not in a plastic bag, it’s neatly wrapped in a pastry box.
It’s Johnny’s attention to the smallest details that creates a buying experience that his customers can’t get anywhere else.
“Ever since I started the brand, it was to make strangers smile,” he said.
No Detail Too Small
Johnny’s business philosophy wasn’t a product of any degree or schooling, it was baked into him as a child.
He fondly remembers Christmas nights where his parents would dip his father’s boots in flour and create footsteps from the chimney to the tree and back.
When he awoke the next morning, there was proof that Santa had been there.
When his mom would get him in the car, she told him they needed to run some important errands. It wasn’t until he saw the ferris wheel that he knew it was all a ploy to surprise him with a day of fun.
It can be the smallest of details that create the biggest impacts, and one of the best testing grounds for this is with event themes.
“When you’re working with a theme,” Johnny said, “there’s a whole new playground of elements to work with.”
One Halloween, Johnny and his team hosted a special event, where they opened the store at night and sold spooky-themed shirts based off of scary movies that they dreamed up, such as “Count Spatula.” (They even went as far as creating movie trailers for these fictitious films).
Crowds were gathered around the store, buying shirts that were packaged in VHS tape cases with the movie design, as projectors showed horror movies and employees dressed like zombies.
As if this wasn’t detailed enough, a hearse with a coffin inside was parked by the store. Stuffed inside was Johnny himself, arriving to his party in a style only he could conjure up.
Even though the shirts that night were more expensive than normal, it didn’t matter. People were willing to pay.
“If you do it the right way, people aren’t thinking about spending money,” he said. “They want to be part of something.”
This desire of inclusion allows him to forego spending money on traditional advertising.
Instead—for a fraction of the cost—he puts “advertising” into packaging, storytelling and creating unforgettable events. Doing this is what drives his audience to keep coming back time and time again.
“You really have to give them a dozen reasons to want to support what you do and to want to talk about it to promote what you do. It can’t just be the same things you did last year. It has to be fun, it has to be funny, it has to be well designed and thoughtful.”
Becoming Human Again
It can be easy for brands of any kind to forget that their audience isn’t a number on a spreadsheet or even a persona to market to; they are living, breathing and feeling human beings.
“I don’t think it’s B2B or B2C, it should be H2H—human-to-human—reminding people of your story, your event’s team, your brand and also being curious about the people showing up.”
Once, Johnny said he took two weeks off of work to handwrite notes to his customers, each of them with personalized messages that would touch them in an individual way.
In the event space, Johnny believes that you can’t use the word “innovation” if you’re doing the exact same thing as everyone else.
You’re not exploring new ideas if your event looks just like all the others. To excel in this area doesn’t take much, he said.
“Do something that’s just ridiculous and wonderful.”
Problems and Solutions
If there’s one thing event professionals are fully conscious of, it’s the idea that something will go wrong. However, it’s how you handle it that determines the outcome more than anything. Do you panic or look for solutions?
“There’s no reason to stress out,” Johnny said. “There’s some things out of your control and the only think in your control is how you react.”
That’s where your well-assembled event team comes in.
While Johnny is a mellow soul by nature, part of the reason he doesn’t stress when things go haywire is because he trusts the people around him and their ability to come up with solutions to any problem.
That comes down to solid leadership.
“Everyone should be put in a position where they feel like they can be helpful and contributing, coming up with solutions.”
With a support system like that in place, it then becomes easier to take risks, experimenting with new things that will separate you from the pack.
Even if they fail, it’s the only way to grow.
And if you don’t grow, someone else will be there to pick up your slack.
“It should haunt you and inspire you that your customers have other options,” he said. “It’s something you should never forget.”
Mitch Cooper is the Content Marketing Manager for Experient. A former journalist, he is passionate about crafting stories that enlighten and engage audiences.
When he’s not writing and editing, he enjoys spending time with his wife and one-year-old son, playing and watching sports and making people laugh.