'90s clothing brand Life Is Good had a record-breaking 2020. Here's how a new generation of superfans helped it survive in a year marked by retail bankruptcies.

  • VSCO girls born in 2003 are wearing their dad's favorite T-shirt brand from the '90s, Life Is Good, famous for its smiling, beret-wearing mascot, Jake.
  • Over the years, Life Is Good set itself apart from other brands by evoking joy through its products and instilling a philosophy of customer centricity.
  • Its cofounder Bert Jacobs doesn't see Life Is Good as a fashion brand but as a communications company that uses apparel as a conduit for positive messages.
  • Jacobs explained how the brand's "rational optimism" helped it to stave off bankruptcy and layoffs during the pandemic and led it to a year of record highs.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

If you watch a day-in-the-life video of a so-called VSCO girl on YouTube, she'll probably show you her morning beauty routine featuring the dewy glow and pastel shades of Glossier makeup. She'll show you how she makes her iced coffee and drinks it with a metal straw. Then she'll give you a tour of her Urban Outfitters dorm room and a mirror view of her outfit, complete with a puka-shell choker.

Viewers who lived through the '90s might notice one item in particular: a simple, pale T-shirt with a stick figure and a simple mantra, "Life is good."

It may seem odd that someone born in 2003 would want to wear a clothing brand that was popular with their parents more than two decades ago. But the reemergence of Life Is Good apparel is also a story of resurrection for the Life Is Good brand and its business.

According to one of the company's cofounders, its executive team, and industry experts, 2020 had all the makings of a low year for the Boston-based brand. But it turned out to be one of the all-time highs. According to internal documents shared with Business Insider, the company projected it would reach $120 million in revenue by the end of the year and double its annual customer acquisition compared with last year.

Bert Jacobs, who founded the company with his brother John in 1994, said that kind of growth was largely attributable to one core belief: Life may not be good right now, but it will get better.

Website conversion broke records, as did charitable donations to the brand's nonprofit focused on healing childhood trauma. Donations at the point of checkout increased 151% from last year, with a total of $416,000 donated. (That's on top of the 10% of net profits the business donates to its nonprofit.)

No doubt some of this success is thanks to a new generation of super fans: Gen Zers who show up in droves on social media to be brand ambassadors or tout what they see as a solid vintage look, for free. "The brand itself is so kind," said Kiarra Thon, 16, who sells cropped Life is Good tees and other reworked goods on her Instagram page @thriftediscoverys. "I posted a picture on my main in one of their shirts, and they sent me a bunch of clothes and items for free! it made my day."

A post shared by Life is Good (@lifeisgoodco)

From the brink of bankruptcy to not a single layoff

Outside the thrift bins, the brand is still projecting its positive outlook onto the world — with the help of its mascot, Jake, the beret-wearing stick figure that camps, swims, bikes, and fishes on the front of its shirts. He's the epitome of finding the joy in life, especially for a year when it seemed everyone was grasping for a sliver of optimism.

Life Is Good has three spokes in its revenue-generating wheel: products it sells in stores wholesale, products it sells online, and licensing fees from partner companies that collaborate on Life Is Good-branded products. Wholesale, which made up nearly half the business, halted abruptly at the start of the pandemic. "All of a sudden we had zero revenue," Jacobs said.

By mid-March, the Boston headquarters of the roughly 200-person company closed and required employees to work remotely. In Hudson, New Hampshire, the company's distribution center could either cease operations or make dramatic changes to keep workers employed.

Like business leaders around the globe, the Jacobs brothers and their executive team had some tough choices to make. To keep the company afloat, they could file for bankruptcy and lay off half the workforce. But they wanted to do everything in their power to keep people employed.

That month, in a remote meeting from the kitchen counter of her apartment in Boston, the brand's president, Lisa Tanzer, asked managers not to panic but to tap into what she calls superpowers of compassion, openness, gratitude, courage, creativity, fun, and humor.

"In good times and in not-so-good times, it's important to stay focused on your business mission," said Tanzer, who's been the president of the company since 2016 and was the first board member of the nonprofit that eventually became the Life Is Good Kids Foundation.

Days of intense virtual meetings with a 10-person task force followed. They decided to keep the distribution center open, carefully following public-health recommendations.

Keith Campbell, the vice president of operations who oversees the New Hampshire facility, was in these meetings.

"We had to accept the fact that COVID will come into the building," he said. "When it's asymptomatic, you can't control that."

In addition to imposing strict rules about social distancing, temperature checks, handwashing, wearing masks, and cleaning, leadership instructed employees to behave as though they were both the only infected person in the building and the only person not infected. The point was to understand that every move you make could spread the virus.

Keeping the warehouse open was just the beginning of the company's strategy to stave off bankruptcy. Leadership decided to go all in on a strategy they'd had been testing out for some time, said Tanzer. Rather than manufacture and screen print the bulk of its apparel in Peru and Guatemala, the company had begun stockpiling blank t-shirts in New Hampshire where it could use local screen printers to print limited runs and test out designs. Not only does this shorten a process that typically took months to a matter of days, it helped the company understand what kind of messaging customers wanted in this uncertain time. 

This print-to-order approach is more labor-intensive in the short term. But over a year it helps to increase profit margins, because the company won't lose money on tons of unsold inventory that would normally end up at off-price retailers like TJ Maxx.

"If the factory has that inventory, it hurts their business. If the brand has that inventory, it hurts our business," Jacobs said. "Inventory kills businesses."

Fast-forward to the holiday season, and the company is breaking records every day, Campbell said. It shipped more than 12,000 packages on December 8. "We just had five consecutive days of breaking a record of shipping orders in a day," he said.

Leading a customer-centric brand with 'rational optimism'

The Jacobs brothers started their business on the foundation that the world didn't need another place to buy T-shirts; it needed optimism.

Tees were just the conduit to serve up positive messages, playful graphics, and a mission for change. In fact, Bert Jacobs doesn't consider Life Is Good an apparel company at all. To him, it's a communications company that can make a greater impact than a government or nonprofit.

"Anybody who thinks we can solve the world's problems without business is out to lunch," he said.

During the tumultuous days of the pandemic, Tanzer said, company leaders asked themselves how they could turn the obstacle into a chance to do things better. "We try to find the opportunities to spread optimism in order to help people through a difficult time," she said.

"We're not believers in an optimism that's blind," Jacobs said. "Blind optimism doesn't acknowledge obstacles, but rational optimism does." Life Is Good would acknowledge the hardships of 2020 while still encouraging people to see the joys in life.

This rational optimism comes to life in graphics like a ponytailed Jake in a hammock above the words "zero tasking" or three colorful daisies atop the Life Is Good slogan. Through its speedier supply chain, the company had the power to speak to the sudden changes and daily uncertainties of 2020, reminding people through its apparel that "this too shall pass" and to "stay calm, stay cool, stay home."

When Major League Baseball postponed its season, the company quickly printed T-shirts that said "2020: the longest rain delay in history." It became one of the bestselling shirts of the year. Other bestsellers riffed on quarantine and science themes, like one that said "Science: It's like magic, but real."

The move was controversial internally, Jacobs said. Some employees saw pandemic-related messages as a huge risk. "People said, 'You can't try to be funny with this. It's dangerous. It's not our place to talk about medical things,'" he said.

But skyrocketing sales numbers proved the graphics were a hit and continued to rebuild lost revenue. Not only did the company keep every employee, but it hired more to cover extra shifts, and, according to Jacobs, it plans to give end-of-year bonuses. The company produced 1,250 new graphics this year, compared with 200 last year. "I doubt anybody in this country sold more quarantining T-shirts than we did," Jacobs said.

The zeitgeisty graphics were a smart marketing move and further cemented Life Is Good as a customer-centric brand at a time when people were searching for hope and goodwill, said Rohit Deshpande, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School.

"We are so focused on negative things," he said. "For anybody to have a really positive message means so much more now than it did before February of 2020."

Deshpande uses the term "customer centricity" to describe a brand philosophy that puts the customer's needs and desires first and believes revenue and profit will follow.

"Consumers need reassurance right now," he said. "The companies that are doing that, it's going to pay off in spades after this pandemic is over."

A new generation of mission-driven consumers

Gen Zers — often described as part of a mission-driven generation — hope to make an impact through their wallets, which represent spending power of more than $140 billion. Whether they're saving sea turtles with reusable straws or providing jobs in Costa Rica with bracelets, their purchases are as morally backed as petition signatures and charity donations.

Life Is Good's altruistic approach and obsession with what its customers want mirror the ice-cream brand Ben and Jerry's, Deshpande said. "Their audience knew that these people were in essence tithing, donating a certain portion of their earnings to nonprofit causes," he said. "You sort of felt good paying more for Ben and Jerry's ice cream than you would for Haagen-Dazs."

Plus, the brand is just old enough — 26 years — for teens to consider its older styles verifiably vintage. Young eco-conscious thrifters on Instagram sell styles with the brand's older, more minimal graphics of flip-flops and butterflies. VSCO girls wear oversized Life Is Good tees with a pair of biker shorts and a wrist full of scrunchies.

A post shared by ✰ reworked thrifted clothes ✰ (@thriftediscoverys)

"There's a lot of consumers and fans that are in the 20-to-30-year-old range that are buying into what we're doing, because they're seeing us in a new light," Jacobs said.

Thon of @thriftediscoverys told Business Insider that young people like the brand's tees because they're of a good quality, motivating, and cute.

"The vintage look in their T-shirts is a lot more intriguing than a plain T-shirt," she said. "The sayings they have on their clothing items, along with cute little pictures, is very inspiring, honestly, and it makes you want to literally be in the picture."

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