Life is Good's $100 million ad-free global success story

For a company with more than $100 million in sales and merchandise in over 4,500 stores in 30 countries, you may be surprised to hear what Life is Good co-founders Bert and John Jacobs aren't doing.

Advertising.

The Life is Good brand started in 1994 with $78 dollars and 48 T-shirts featuring a stick-figure named Jake, and it's grown into a global phenomenon relying on an idea radical to the status quo on Madison Avenue: depending on a community to spread the "good" word.

John and Bert Jacobs, Life is good
Source: Life is good
John and Bert Jacobs, Life is good

"We don't have to scream about Life is Good," Bert Jacobs said at the iCONIC conference in Chicago on Tuesday. "We don't have any signs there that say Life is Good [at our events]. What's the halo effect to our brand? I think it's better than interrupting them to talk about ourselves, which is what advertising has been for decades and decades."

While many companies spend millions of dollars on advertising every year, Life is Good's advertising approach can be summed up by the '60s hippie expression: "spreading good vibes."

A dialogue between consumers and businesses—with businesses listening to consumers—is the result of a community first being formed.

"Capitalism works. It really does work. And in the digital age, consumers are co-authoring the stories of a brand. They are beginning to vote with their dollar. That's a healthy thing for business, because consumers are building business or they are tearing them down." -Bert Jacobs, co-founder of Life is Good

"We want to work with anyone who is inventive, creative and that can say that life is good in their own words," Jacobs said. "It's building our business together. We are introducing them to millions of Facebook fans who haven't heard of them. So we are trading. We are not necessarily trading dollars and cents. We are trading community members."

The lifestyle brand—which sells everything from the original T-shirts to a full line of men's, women's, children's and home collections all featuring the brand of optimism—currently has more than 2.5 million Facebook followers and over 253,000 Twitter followers.

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"Capitalism works. It really does work. And in the digital age, consumers are co-authoring the stories of a brand. They are beginning to vote with their dollars," Bert Jacobs said. "That's a healthy thing for business, because consumers are building business or they are tearing them down."

The brand generated $3 million in sales by 2000 and had plans to publicize its brand through radio advertisements. However, the company's plans changed when the brothers began receiving letters from people who had been moved by their products. One letter came from twin brothers who had suffered medical complications due to their premature birth but had remained optimistic with the help of stick-figure Jake.

"What do you do when you get a letter like that?" Bert Jacobs asked. The brothers pulled out of the radio contract and used their advertising budget to sponsor a pumpkin festival in Maine. The company raised over $100,000 dollars for camps for children with life-threatening conditions.

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After the success of their pumpkin festival, Bert and John created Life is Good Playmakers, an accredited public chairty, as a way to further its vision of "spreading good vibes." Its mission is to aid children who face poverty, illness and violence to focus on opportunities rather than obstacles.

The charity is funded in part by donations, but the majority of funding comes from product sales. Life is Good donates a minimum of 10 percent of all sales to their nonprofit agenda.

"The profitability of the for-profit side should always feed the nonprofit side. ... You don't have to choose between for profit and nonprofit. You can integrate these things," Bert Jacobs said. "It is important to our customer base. They react positively to it."

By 2005, sales had grown to $50 million without a single ad.

Life is Good recently partnered with Grammy award winner Zac Brown at the Hangout Music Festival in Alabama to support its own charity as well as Brown's passion project Camp Southern Ground. The company offered a limited-edition T-shirt for any gift of $35 or more donated to the Life is Good Playmakers.

"It isn't just a product to them anymore. They look at it in a way that says, 'Wow, this is something I belong to.' It's a club. It's a cult," Bert Jacobs said. "Whatever you want to say. But it builds businesses in a positive way, and it's authentically making the world a better place."