Even though he broke his foot dancing at his brother's wedding one recent weekend, life is still good for Bert Jacobs.
Jacobs is the 42-year-old co-founder of Life is Good, a popular apparel brand in Boston that is on track to break $100-million in annual sales. This is rarefied air for Jacobs, who a dozen years ago was selling T-shirts out of a battered van on the streets of Boston with his brother John, now 39.
From a single childlike drawing of a character they named Jake and their uplifting three-word slogan, the brothers have developed a fashion brand sold in 4,500 independent retail outlets in the United States and 27 other countries.
Since 1994, they have sold nearly 20-million Life is Good T-shirts and have a product line with more than 900 items, from hats to dog beds, and the company continues to grow 30 to 40 percent annually. Ninety-three independently owned Life is Good retail shops sell only their merchandise, and the company plans to have 200 by the end of 2009. With all that, Life is Good has just 250 employees.
Life is Good offers one more example of a small company creating a big brand. Though most consumers associate great brands with marketing giants like Procter & Gamble, General Motors, Apple and Nike, the ability to build a powerful brand is no longer reserved for the big spenders. Small companies with great ideas and well-planned strategies - Kryptonite bicycle locks, Stonyfield Farm yogurt, Zipcar - have spawned prominent brands.
"A big brand comes from big insights about culture and consumers and what it is that they need," said Susan Fournier, a brand expert and associate professor of marketing at the School of Management at Boston University. "To me, that has nothing to do with big budgets."
"Life is Good tapped into an emotional ethos that struck a chord with where the culture was at a certain point in time. That is not done by a marketing budget but by their customers who become evangelists and give the brand visibility and credibility."
Doug Gladstone, CEO of Brand Content, an ad agency in Boston, said, "they tapped into something positive yet benign. The product makes you feel good but it's not over the top." By the end of 1994, the brothers had sold $82,000 of Life is Good shirts through a couple of retail outlets. Within four years, they broke the $1-million mark and believed they had found the business they had always dreamed of and that they were sitting on an emerging brand.
The outside world did not see it that way. "It was a real uphill battle to get other people to say we had a brand," Bert Jacobs said. "At $10-million and even $20 million in sales, they were still asking us when we were going to launch something different."
Skeptics have warned the brothers that their concept has a limited shelf life, and, indeed, they plan to extend the brand to try to keep it vibrant.