Life Is Good: A $100 Million Brand With No Ads

Life is good/Q+A with Bert Jacobs

While it's certainly no emblem of marketing sophistication, Life is good's happy logo is familiar to optimists everywhere. Since its start selling t-shirts in dorms and at street fairs, brothers Bert and John Jacobs have turned the trademark smiley face into a $100 million business.

This week, the company is getting its feet wet in the music business, partnering with the brains behind Bonnaroo, the highest-grossing music festival in North America, to introduce The Life is good Festival, starring adult acts like Jason Mraz, Ben Harper, Corinne Bailey Rae and Ziggy Marley, as well as headliners meant to appeal to kids, too.

Marketing Daily asked CEO Bert Jacobs, who refers to himself as chief executive optimist, to comment on what's made so many people want to wear the company's upbeat message so proudly.



Q: So, you've never advertised in 16 years. How did that philosophy develop?

A. At first, it wasn't a strategy -- we just didn't have the money. But we started the Life is good brand, and people talked about it. It was sort of owned by the consumer, right from the beginning. We were just making shirts and filling orders. So five years or so into it, when some consultants told us that our growth wouldn't be sustainable without advertising, we thought about it. It just doesn't seem like a good fit for our brand -- it's more authentic for us to do things that have social impact.

Q: What has your growth rate been?

A. We're roughly a $100 million company, with 90% of our business in the U.S. Until the recession, we were growing at about 25 to 30% per year. Luckily, our COO had us in good shape, and we've planned our business to be flat for a few years. We're actually down about 14% in the last two years, like many in the retail business, but thanks to that planning, we haven't had to lay anyone off. And we're back in growth mode now.

Q: Why a music festival?

A. Two years ago, we had an event called Life is good at Fenway Park, which was quite successful. We realized it did so well because of the venue -- who wouldn't want to play bocce in the outfield of Fenway? But we wanted to do something more sustainable, that didn't depend on baseball. We partnered with Superfly, which does Bonnaroo, and agreed that music really is the best vehicle for building community, and this new festival is the result.

Q: Why kids' music, too? The festival has acts like Laurie Berkner Band and Dan Zanes & Friends.

A. We really wanted a family festival. Parents don't stop being cool the minute they have kids. Everyone kept insisting we could either do a festival adults would like, which didn't welcome kids, or one adults would bring their kids, but that they'd hate the music. We thought we could do it. That's the best thing about being a private company -- you can make decisions like that, based on asking, "Who are our favorite artists? Who would we like to hear?"

Q: So the show is this weekend, right outside Boston. What's the most a brand can gain from an event like this?

A. That everyone who comes to the event loves it, and then goes home and talks about it -- in person, and through social media. Word of mouth has always been the strength of our brand. Our stated goal is to raise $1 million for the Life is good Kids Foundation, and of course, I'd like the event to be a financial success. But even if we only raise half that, we'll be back with this next year. Our site is offering ways to raise funds virtually if you can't attend, and ticket upgrades for VGPs -- Very Good People, who donate larger amounts.

Q: Where did the smiley face come from?

A. Jake? My brother drew him. And the dog, Rocket, who is on a lot of our merchandise, comes from our school mascot, the Needham [Mass.] Rockets.

Q: What's next?

A. We're going to get involved in some things outside clothing. Jake is very important, but it's not as simple as just putting the logo on something. Our brand is about optimism, which isn't just fun and healthy, it's empowering. It can take you anywhere. We still believe that will be the engine of growth, going forward.

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