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Can pranking your customers make your brand memorable?

With oversaturation and over choice, it is hard for companies to make their brands stand out so customers will notice them.



In a world where your customer struggles from oversaturation and overchoice at every turn, it’s hard to make your brand stand out. That is unless you’re waiting to pop out behind every turn. I’m talking pranks. Few companies have dared to prank their customers, but those who do are never forgotten.

Ever heard of Johnny Cupcakes? He’s a marketing keynote speaker, as well as the founder of a T-shirt company called Johnny Cupcakes. He’s built his brand off the premise “all press is good press.”

His T-shirt company sells their shirts out of a storefront designed to look, smell and function like a bakery with limited-edition shirts sitting behind glass pastry cases. They sell the shirts until their in-store stock is sold out, with no back-ordering or waitlisting. If you aren’t there to claim it when they release it, you won’t get one. This adds an element of exclusivity to the pranks that people love and travel across the world.

The entire premise of his company is one big bait-and-switch—drawing people in for delicious cupcakes then swapping them out for custom shirts. He says some people love it and buy a shirt just for the memory of a good laugh. And others hate it and leave nasty Yelp reviews that give him a good laugh.

When I spoke with Johnny, he showed me a particularly aggressive review focusing on the lack of cupcakes at the Boston location. To everybody but the hangry reviewer, the post is hilarious. Johnny explained that even though you will definitely upset some people, the pranks are worth it because they create buzz and exclusivity.

As Johnny and I laughed about the post together I realized we had created a little club this kook reviewer wasn’t invited to. He didn’t get it, so we didn’t want him. It’s an incredibly bonding experience for those that do “get it.” Johnny mentioned off-hand he’ll probably make a shirt out of the negative Yelp review. Talk about leaning into a prank.

Johnny Cupcakes brand
Johnny Cupcakes draw people in for delicious cupcakes then swap them out for custom shirts. (Photo by Hoozah Goods via Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0)

Not only do you feel like you’re on the inside of a joke, but the people who hate it WILL talk about it. This review would pique anyone’s interest enough to launch an internet search to figure out what is going on with this faux-cupcake store. And when they figure it out, they’ll most likely join in on the joke.

Marketing expert and speaker Carmen Simon, PhD uses her cognitive neuroscience background to help companies make their marketing stick in consumers’ ever-fading memory. Among other elements of memorable marketing Simon claims that surprise, emotion, and novelty work to bring your brand to the forefront of people’s minds.

Johnny’s unique marketing uses pranks to hit all three of these elements.


Our brains function in very primitive ways. When we encounter something surprising, our brain tries hard to recall every detail and hold onto the memory so that we can better predict how to handle the situation in the future.

When our ancestors encountered a wild boar while hunting this was very important to survival. But now, we can use this brain function to enhance our marketing in less life-threatening ways.

The surprise one feels when realizing they were duped by icing scented air fresheners in the AC vents will create a lasting memory for those who stumble into Johnny’s stores.


Whether it’s positive, like his followers all around the world, or negative, like the Yelp reviewer, an emotional response will create an attachment to the brand and get people talking. By polarizing your audience you create a stronger bond with those that choose to align with you.


Simon says novelty sticks in our memory for similar reasons to surprise and emotion. She explains novelty can be something distinctively new like finding a new animal species, or it can be relatively new by combining two known objects you’ve never seen together before, like T-shirt sales in a bakery.

People love to mark novelty not only in their minds but with a souvenir. Johnny banks on this for first-time visitors.

However, Johnny is a lot less methodical about the whole process. When you talk to him, you realize he’s a born prankster who figured out how to unite the pranksters of the world and turn it into a profitable and lovable company.

(Featured image by DepositPhotos)

DISCLAIMER: This article expresses my own ideas and opinions. Any information I have shared are from sources that I believe to be reliable and accurate. I did not receive any financial compensation for writing this post, nor do I own any shares in any company I’ve mentioned. I encourage any reader to do their own diligent research first before making any investment decisions.

Jessica Welch is the Marketing Content Associate at BigSpeak Speakers Bureau. She graduated with a degree in English, minor in Anthropology from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Her studies at Cal Poly were focused on Creative Writing and Cultural Anthropology. Jessica enjoys partnering with BigSpeak's roster of exclusive speakers to create original content that spreads their unique messages.