Johnny ‘Cupcakes’ Earle to share secrets of building brand loyalty at Gasser Lecture Series

Iconic T-shirt store founder inspires with innovative strategies, Willy Wonka-esque experiences

Johnny “Cupcakes” Earle, founder of the world-renowned T-shirt brand Johnny Cupcakes—widely recognized for inspiring cult-like brand loyalty, including mile-long store queues and even permanent tattoos—will deliver the annual Gasser Lecture Series on campus next week.

Hosted by Saunders College of Business at RIT, Earle’s public talk is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Friday, Nov. 3, in the Ingle Auditorium. Admission is free and registration is recommended for his speech titled, “Building Brand Loyalty, Customer Obsession, and Memorable Experiences.”

Earle is renowned for helping people create blueprints for building brand loyalty, creating memorable experiences, and inspiring innovation. His brainchild, Johnny’s “fakery,” is a bakery-themed, frosting scented T-shirt shop on Boston’s historic Newbury Street, where clothing is displayed in refrigerators and lunch-boxed apparel orders are pulled out of a secret smoking oven in a veritable Willy Wonka-esque experience. 

Earle recognizes that while some people leave with T-shirts and others leave hangry and empty handed, all of his customers leave with a memory and a story to share.

“I was inspired to be an entrepreneur at a young age,” he recalled. “I started 16 businesses before I was 16, but I failed at all of them. For me, it was being curious and loving to put puzzles together.”

He added that some of his self-described “kooky ideas” were seeded back when he was a young boy growing up. “My parents used to dip my father’s boots into baking flour and they’d make footsteps from the chimney to the Christmas tree,” Earle mused. “I would call up my friends and would say, ‘You have to come over here, Santa is real!’”

With global pop-ups, thousands of customers with his logo tattooed on themselves, people who camp out for his products, and high-profile collaborations with industry giants such as The Simpsons, Power Rangers, and Nickelodeon, Earle was named “America’s #1 Young Entrepreneur” by Businessweek, “Top Innovator in Retail” by The Boston Globe, and featured in Inc. Magazine as CEO of one of the world’s fastest growing independent businesses.

Through his keynote talks and creative consulting, he has shared his strategies with clients that include Apple, L’Oreal, and Disney. Also a TEDx speaker, Earle has been featured on media such as MTV, NPR, and WIRED, and as a regular case study in several branding and business books.

“I’ve been selling the same thing for almost 23 years, and every day I am both haunted and inspired by the question: why is someone going to choose my T-shirt when people can buy shirts anywhere else,” Earle observed.

“I talk about trying to stay inspired and giving complete strangers a reason to give you their attention with whatever type of business,” he added. “Success doesn’t always happen right away. Look at failures as experiments. Experiments are learning as we grow.”

The William D. Gasser Distinguished Lectureship was established by Jones Chemicals Inc. of Caledonia, N.Y., in recognition of Gasser’s numerous contributions as a teacher at RIT and as a director of and financial advisor to Jones Chemicals Inc.

Gasser was an independent auditor at Jones Chemicals Inc. from 1940 to 1967. He was also a partner-in-charge of the Rochester office of Haskins & Sells in 1967. He joined what was then known as RIT’s College of Business faculty in 1967 and achieved a long list of honors and accomplishments, including RIT’s Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 1971. He also served on the boards of several charitable, business, and professional organizations, including the Catholic Charities of Rochester, the Hearing and Speech Center of Rochester, and the Monroe County Unit of the American Cancer Society.

Sari Anne Rapkin ’78 (accounting), a former student who eulogized her late professor 46 years ago, played an integral role with others in commissioning a commemorative bronze plaque that’s still on display near the college’s administrative offices to this day.

“He was my faculty advisor, mentor, and so much more,” said Rapkin, a retired partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLC in Boston. “There’s so much richness to what he did, and there are countless people who would tell you the same thing.”

“My wish is that when people talk about him, that they know what a great man he was to so many,” Rapkin said. “He wasn’t only a professor, he was a leader in Rochester’s business and philanthropic community and a thoughtful, kind mentor to so many students.”

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