Life Is Good: Powered By People, Fueled By Optimism

Can fostering a culture of optimism among consumers drive t-shirt sales and help kids in need at the same time? The folks at Life is good are banking on it. Welcome to the glass-is-half-full company.

It would be easy to say the people behind the Life is good brand are simply looking at the world through rose-colored glasses and inviting consumers to pay to join in the experience.

The company has become a big enterprise as a purveyor of T-shirts and accessories with life-affirming statements like “Do what you like, like what you do,” and “Forecast: Mostly sunny,” accentuated by drawings that celebrate the simple life: relaxing on the beach or going fishing.

Life is good positions itself as a “glass half full” kind of company (yes, that’s another phrase they’ve used). Its brand and message seek to be an antidote to the doldrums and daily grind. It offers a little levity and hope to a stressed-out world with its colorful T-shirts, hats, dog collars, coffee mugs and its mascot, the smiley stick figure guy named Jake.

But look a little deeper and you’ll find this isn’t just another T-shirt company.

“Our mission as a company is to spread the power of optimism,” says David Oksman, head of marketing at Life is good, and himself an inveterate optimist. “Optimism is where everything begins for us. It’s the critical mission of our organization.”

For Life is good, the dedication to spreading ”good vibes” means more than manufacturing delight through products with happy-go-lucky messages and images of American flags and beach chairs.

An Engine of Optimism

Though they won’t deny that profit is inherently part of their work, the company’s focus on affirming a positive life outlook is foundational. The philosophy goes back to the company’s roots in 1994, when founders/brothers John and Bert Jacobs hit on the theory that reminding people to think about the small, good things in life could resonate with a big segment of consumers. (Clearly it has: In a MassChallenge speech in Boston last October, Bert Jacobs said the company’s annual revenues had hit $100 million.)

'Optimism is where everything begins for us.'--David Oksman, head of marketing at Life is good

The company weaves optimism into all elements of is business, not just the merchandise. Life is good retail stores host free concerts and kids’ play events. Thousands of people attended the Life is good Festival last September near Boston, raising $1 million for the Life is good Playmakers. Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds will headline the 2012 Festival, Sept. 22-23.

The nonprofit Playmakers itself is an engine of optimism. It trains teachers, social workers and others in the techniques of play therapy so they can return to their communities and help kids suffering from poverty and violence. Its work extends internationally, to places like Haiti.

Marketing initiatives including the brand’s web platform (lifeisgood.com) and social channels (it has 1.4 million Facebook fans and 134,000 Twitter followers) are all part of perpetuating the community of good vibes. The company’s new website even offers Life is good Radio, with a hand-selected playlist. (“Good tunes and good vibes go hand in hand,” the site tells us.)

“Optimism is not a strategy; it’s ingrained in who we are,” Oksman says.

Doing good and doing well

Values-based marketing isn’t new, and numerous companies have proven that an authentic, genuine business focus on values that matter to consumers can pay off in a big way, benefitting the bottom line and the community.

Many companies, from Tom’s Shoes to Stonyfield Yogurt, have built their brands and their business around doing well and doing good. Tom’s, for instance, donates one pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair sold. Stonyfield has long supported green causes, organic farmers and charitable initiatives. 

Companies like these tap into something deeper and more humane (and human) in consumers. They connect with people not on product, pricing or prestige, but on principle. The companies, and the communities they foster, become a font of energy, inspiration, and goodwill that gets amplified far beyond the transaction between business and customer.

Companies that lean in this direction are practicing smart marketing. A recent article published by McKinsey & Co., “Demystifying Social Media,” put this into perspective, applying the concept of amplification, framed as:

“[D]esigning your marketing activities to have an inherently social motivator that spurs broader engagement and sharing. … It means that the core concepts for campaigns must invite customers into an experience that they can choose to extend by joining a conversation with the brand, product, fellow users, and other enthusiasts [and] having ongoing programs that share new content with customers and provide opportunities for sharing back. It means offering experiences that customers will feel great about sharing, because they gain a badge of honor by publicizing content that piques the interest of others.

Oksman, who says he admires the marketing and social strategies of brands like Red Bull and Harley-Davidson, among others, describes optimism as “fuel” and an implement in every individual’s tool belt that can help them live a better, more rewarding life.

Individuals can choose to use it. Or not.

“People sometimes say to us, ‘You’re all about hearts and daisies. Optimism is soft, and you guys aren’t realists.’ Well, there’s a reason why it’s Life is good, and not Life is great. We’ve learned from our community that optimism is about strength.”

Personal stories are 'fuel' for brand and its fans

Spreading optimism means a lot of things at Life is good. A major one: they’ve created an online “Hub of Optimism" via their website, which weaves commerce with a thriving community of optimists, individuals and families who share photos and tell stories of heartbreak and of hope. Common thread: they all stand up for optimism, whether they face trials or triumphs. 

Folks aren’t shy about sharing their perspectives in the website’s “Good Vibes” section. In Life is good’s case, it’s a BYOO situation--Bring Your Own Optimism.

Adherents don’t need much prodding.

A user-submitted photograph called “Celebrate Life” shows a family out camping and carries this message: “Since our son was diagnosed with cancer at age 3 we have celebrated LIFE as much as we can, and this brand has become our FAVORITE!!!”

In another snapshot, a little boy struggles to walk with the aid of a walker. An optimist writes:

“Physicians have told him he won't be able to walk. Physicians have told him he won't live to five. Every doctor has told him, he can't do it. He's proven them wrong. God is good. :) He's my little brother Yandel and he thinks Life is Good every day of his life.”

In another, a writer pens a lengthy remembrance of her father, a lifelong optimist and Air Force rescue helicopter pilot in Vietnam, who had died of cancer: “He lived the saying, ‘Life is good.’ He made it real.”

Says Oksman: “We don’t solicit [the stories] at all. These are organically coming in to us. Ultimately, we don’t own optimism, our community does. So we want to create tools to let our consumers engage.”

To extend the have-fun, do-good theme, the company provides online tools so anyone can run a fundraiser to benefit Playmakers--turning everyday events, like a neighborhood BBQ or a friends-and-family movie night, into a benefit.

All of this is coming from a company that has never been keen on spending much money on traditional marketing.

The verdict: optimism sells.

“We don’t operate from a tactics-based mindset,” Oksman says. “Many companies might say, ‘We have a great T-shirt, it’s good quality, and it’s got a fun saying on it.’ That’s not how we think. For us, it’s rallying people around the belief [in] the power of optimism and helping kids in need. Everything spirals out from there.”

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