How 5 Famous T-shirt Brands Achieved Success

June 07, 2016 0 Comments

Once upon a time, branding was simple--it was a logo here, a splash of color there, and maybe even a tagline. But as consumers evolved, so too did their need for branding that meant something. Today, consumers crave stories about passion, good-will, and courage. Brands that fail to meet the bar are quickly left in the dust, while those that do are just as quickly rewarded with a boost in social media standing, today’s gold standard.

While this is a relatively new development for many companies, there are a handful of old-school cool cats who found huge success using this approach before anyone knew what it was--long before social media was born. Their continued success is a testament to the power of originality and passion.

But don’t just take our word for it. See for yourself: How 5 Famous T-shirt Brands Achieved Success

1. Stussy

Stussy magazine ad 1983 (left) and Stussy Summer 2016 Lookbook (right)

The founder of the iconic Stussy brand, Shawn Stussy, started as a surfboard shaper who just wanted to sell some boards. In a promotional effort, Stussy printed t-shirts with the same signature he placed on his surfboards and made his way to his first surfboard trade show. The promotional effort turned out to be a hit, but ironically it was the t-shirts that everyone wanted.

The uniqueness of Stussy's signature drove the initial demand for his t-shirts--the graffiti styling was actually inspired by his artist uncle, Jan Stussy. However, the ongoing demand and consistent recognition of the brand as an icon of streetwear happened because Stussy did what many other brands had yet to discover:

  • Consistency: When Stussy found his niche in casual streetwear, he consistently stayed true to its brand and never followed flashy trends. To this day, Stussy apparel still rocks the unique signature, unique designs, and the laidback attitudes of its first supporters.

  • Word-of-mouth: Throughout its history, the brand has chosen to ignore marketing--relying instead on the influence and recognition of its fans, both big and small. Stussy never had to tell others it was a cool brand, everyone else was already doing it for them.

  • Exclusivity: Stussy kept tight control over the brand's distribution and availability. Demand rose because he supplied new products in limited batches and kept his brand outside of major retailers. Today, the sheer size of the brand has pushed it into several large retailers, but it still offers exclusive releases only available at Stussy boutiques.

2. Johnny Cupcakes

Original Johnny Cupcakes tee (left) and Johnny Cupcakes Red Plumber Crossbones tee 2016 (right)

Johnny Earle, better known as Johnny Cupcakes, started his line of t-shirts as a joke. Co-workers often added new last names to his first name--Johnny Appleseed, Johnny Pancakes, Johnny Come-Lately, etc. "Johnny Cupcakes" happened to be the latest rendition while Earle was designing a t-shirt for his band and wanted to add a nickname for himself. Fifteen years and a lot of elbow grease later, the joke has become a wildly popular brand with its own cult following.

What is it about Johnny Cupcakes that causes thousands of fans to tattoo themselves with his signature cupcake and crossbones or stand in long lines for a t-shirt?

  • Exclusivity: Everything about the Johnny Cupcakes brand is tightly controlled. Fans can only purchase goods directly from the Johnny Cupcakes website or at one of four Johnny Cupcakes boutiques. The brand is also known for extremely limited special releases.

  • Word-of-mouth: Similar to Stussy, Johnny Cupcakes never relied on traditional advertising. Its unique designs piqued the initial interest from locals, but Johnny Cupcakes has grown majorly by word-of-mouth. Whether it's the novelty of the bakery-themed stores, the personal packaging, or the winding lines for a product release, the brand is always generating positive buzz from fans.

  • Story: Even more loved than the brand is the man behind it all. Even after 15 years, it's fair to say that the Johnny Cupcakes brand is an extension of its founder, Johnny Earle. His insistence on overseeing every detail creates a personal experience with his fans. They sympathize with his underdog story--selling t-shirts out of his car in between gigs--and more than appreciate the meticulous attention he still pays to every shirt.

3. BustedTees

BustedTees GILF 2004 (left) and BustedTees Rick Astley For President (2016) (right)

In comparison, BustedTees is slightly newer to the t-shirt scene. Good friends Ricky Van Veen, Josh Abramson, Zach Klein, and Jacob Lodwick started the side business as a fun means to pay for the costs of maintaining CollegeHumor.com. The team sat down in March 2004 to sketch out 10 shirt designs, and the funny T-shirts were an instant hit with the CollegeHumor fan base.

BustedTees' success relied on factors different from Stussy and Johnny Cupcakes:

  • Niche: The co-founders knew their target audience inside and out, having established a loyal fanbase on CollegeHumor. Knowing their niche so well enabled BustedTees to create t-shirts that consistently resonated with fans. A decade later and they remain consistent in marketing funny content to their 18-28 year old demographic.

  • Advertising: BustedTees relied on traditional advertising by placing ads onto CollegeHumor's site. Considering BustedTees and CollegeHumor shared the same audience and similar content, this move worked tremendously well.

  • Originality: While BustedTees' designs may occasionally raise eyebrows (it is geared toward 18-28 year olds after all), the brand continues to make efforts to remain humorous and original. If BustedTees were to offer shirts everyone else offered, its customers would have little incentive to return.

4. Life is Good

Original drawing of Jake from April 1994 (left) and Jake on a t-shirt 2016 (right)

When brothers Bert and John Jacobs started the Life is Good brand in 1994 with $78 dollars and 48 t-shirts featuring a stick-figure named Jake, they never would have guessed they were starting a $100 million business. Today, Life is Good merchandise can be found in over 4,500 stores in 30 countries, but you may be surprised to hear what the brothers are not doing.

Advertising.

Instead, their approach can be summed up in the rather hippie expression: "spreading good vibes."

That very optimism originally kept the brothers afloat in the years prior to Life is Good as they hawked their wares up and down the northeastern coast, surviving on PB&J sandwiches and living out of their van. Following a particularly unsuccessful trip, the brothers debated whether they should give it all up and get "real" jobs. The discussion sparked the idea for the Life is Good company.

Having made the decision to not rely on traditional advertising, the brothers relied on different means:

  • Charity: Their commitment to raising money for charitable causes guarantees brand awareness. By aligning the Life is Good brand with the conviction that exists in everyone, it endlessly expands the brand's potential to not only succeed, but to also do good.

  • Word of mouth: Life is Good donates a portion of every purchase to a cause, making every purchase feel like a small badge of honor. Fans proudly wear the Life is Good brand as walking advertisements to their friends and family everywhere. Additionally, the brand backs causes in a way that requires all participants to rally up supporters--anyone who didn't know about Life is Good certainly will now.

  • Collaboration: The powerful message behind Life is Good has attracted many influencers, creating even more opportunities to amplify the brand.

5. Ugmonk

Ugmonk 1st anniversary t-shirt (left) and Ugmonk Spring 2016 Ripple Effect t-shirt (Right)

After launching Ugmonk in August 2008 with just 4 designs and 200 total shirts, things accelerated quickly for founder Jeff Sheldon. Within 2 years, the fledgling clothing business grew from a side project to a full time operation.

Ugmonk openly admits they do not heavily rely on traditional advertising. Their success can be attributed to several factors:

  • Word of mouth: Sheldon maintains an open line of communication with his fanbase and relies on organic user-generated content to spread the word about Ugmonk. The result? Ugmonk merchandise has made its way into 62 different countries.

  • Unique: When Sheldon drew the first designs for Ugmonk, he knew he wanted simplicity--something that did not exist with mainstream t-shirt designs in 2008. At the time, it was the trend to sport wildly designed t-shirts. Ugmonk chose to express wit and personality through bold colors, typography, and clever concepts. It was a hit.

  • Charity: If we've learned anything from Life is Good, it's that people will stand behind a brand with a cause. Ugmonk is no different. Every holiday season, the brand partners with Rice Bowl to feed hungry children.

Honorable Mention: Animal Hearted Apparel

Featured Animal Hearted Apparel t-shirts

At GearLaunch, we're always keeping an eye out for noteworthy newcomers in the ecommerce space. Animal Hearted Apparel has recently caught our eye, using a combination of the success tactics we mentioned above.

  • Charity: Animal Hearted Apparel donates 25% of proceeds from every order to a non-profit animal shelter or rescue.
  • Word of mouth: Animal Hearted Apparel participates actively on social media, but also proactively encourages fan participation through user-generated content (selfies, pet selfies, selfies with pets, etc.). This type of content not only acts as a testament for their products but also marketing for the brand since the content reaches beyond Animal Hearted's existing fans.
Ngan Ton
San Francisco, CA Website
Tech enthusiast, cat lover, bookworm, and Content Marketing Manager at GearLaunch