A Helpful Reminder About the 'Good' Business of CU Movement

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Credit unions got some pretty good advice recently from a guy they likely once would have turned down for a loan.

You may not have heard of Bert Jacobs, but you've probably seen his message and his gear-you may even own some of it. But are you willing to take ownership of the business strategy he espouses?

Jacobs heads up Life is Good, the once all-but-broke T-shirt peddler that has blossomed into a brand with annual revenues north of $100-million. If you have to dwell very long on what the message might be of a company called Life is Good, perhaps you also have trouble finding the arm holes in your T-shirt. Good brands, as every CU audience has been told by parade of speakers, immediately conjure up a message or image. Yet despite that drumbeat, you have to wonder how many execs give much thought to what their own CU brings to mind in consumers/members, or, for that matter, what the credit union movement as a whole is perceived to stand for.

Jacobs, along with his brother, John, started selling T-shirts of their own design in 1989 in Boston and along the East Coast, all while living in a van. They were what is now known as an "underserved" demographic. Speaking to CUNA's recent America's CU Conference in Boston, Jacobs shared their life of peanut butter, occasional showers and what we'll just call a tight lid on the expense ratio.

Anyone else likely would have packed it in after a year or two, but Bert and John persisted, certainly not realizing that optimism would become the underpinning of future success. In 1994, with sales as flat as the shirts they were hawking, Jacobs and his brother had an "interesting conversation. "We talked about the media and the fact it inundates our culture with negative information. It's a bummer. We don't make believe these things don't happen, but there are good things that deserve attention, too. We were looking for some symbol focused on what is right in the world."

With John handling the creative, that symbol became a character they called Jake (who bears a separated-at-birth resemblence to the Jim Carrey character in the movie The Mask), along with the motto, "Life is Good."

"As we get older we tend to get a bit skeptical," said Jacobs. "One reason we like to be around children is they are the always optimistic. They are the ultimate inspiration for Life is Good. Jake's power is optimism. He doesn't need anything. He doesn't need a big boat or a Mercedes Benz. He's happy. Everybody can be Jake."

And everybody wanted to own Jake. The brothers sold their first 48 Jake shirts off a card table at a street festival in 45 minutes. Then one of the retailers the Jacobs brothers worked with asked if Jake could "kayak." Another asked if Jake could "golf." Soon enough Jake was kayaking and golfing and doing much more, all with the simple message that Life is Good. The shirts flew out of stores.

"Sometimes you do nothing, so we put some shirts out there with Jake doing nothing, and they outsold everything," Jacobs noted.

How popular was the message? "Initially people came and helped out as volunteers to sell the shirts. They wanted to be around this message that Life is Good," he recalled. "We learned along the way that it's not just about Jake, you can say 'Life is Good' in so many ways."

In 1994, with sales at $87,000, it began rolling out some of those "ways," which today include all kinds of clothing, home accessories, beach coolers, towels, tire covers, golf balls, and a whole lot more (see www.lifeisgood.com).

In the wake of the September 2001 terrorist bombings, Jacobs said many employees questioned if life was, indeed, still good. One employee suggested creating a T-shirt from which all profits would go to United Way. The goal was $60,000. The effort raised $207,000.

"This was the second pivotal moment in our lives," he said. "We learned that day we can do so much more with Life is Good than just make money. We knew after this we were going to try to do this 365 days per year."

The company created a Life is Good Foundation and has hosted all sorts of diverse - and fun - fundraisers, beginning with an old-fashioned pumpkin festival, where it ended up running out of pumpkins and pie. "America is not the selfish, overly materialistic place people think it is," said Jacobs. "If you give people the opportunity they will come together." Later it helped set a world record with 31,000 lit pumpkins in one place, raising a half-million-dollars in the process for children's causes.

Jacobs could have collected his speaker's fee and never tailored any remarks to his audience and there wouldn't have been any complaints. And yet he offered up some advice everyone in Credit Union Land should be embracing, especially now. "Credit unions are a tool for people's lives. That's what you should be talking about."

That was especially insightful, as a day later in a general session CUNA added to address "hot issues" in credit unions, the first question was about a national branding campaign. So how much does Life is Good budget for its big media branding initiative? "We have never spent a dime on advertising," said Jacobs.

It's hardly suffering as a result. In 2001, annual sales at Life is Good were $7 million. Last year, sales hit $120 million.

"We're growing like mad because people like it when you're doing something good and they want to be a part of it," he said. "Be Jake. Believe that anything is possible, and it is."

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann@cujournal.com.

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