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A positive outlook?

Apparel company says bad times make its message more vital

Looking on the sunny side, company co-founder Bert Jacobs points out that while one store has closed, more than 100 others carry Life is good's gear. Looking on the sunny side, company co-founder Bert Jacobs points out that while one store has closed, more than 100 others carry Life is good's gear. (Globe Staff Photo / Dina Rudick)
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / March 17, 2009
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"Life is good" says the T-shirt, the hoodie, the baseball cap, and the onesie, to which one might reasonably respond in these days of doom and gloom: Really?

When Bert and John Jacobs launched their self-described optimistic apparel company out of a Boston apartment 15 years ago, we were smack in the middle of the go-go '90s and those three little words - part lifestyle, part mantra, part last-ditch effort by a pair of struggling T-shirt entrepreneurs to make rent money - seemed to mirror the national mood.

Today, not so much. Which oddly enough might makes this something of a golden moment for the Life is good company.

"It is generally people who face the greatest adversity who embrace this message the most," says Bert Jacobs, whose company website features a section of "inspiring letters that fuel us all to keep spreading good vibes." The letters include testimonials from survivors of a grizzly bear attack, a young amputee, and a soldier stationed in Iraq. "People have a higher sense and appreciation of the simple things when they've been through something difficult. It's our job to see the glass half full."

Life is good doesn't have a demographic, the brothers like to say, but rather a psychographic: the optimists. And while one might imagine that their numbers are dwindling at roughly the same rate as their retirement accounts, some observers suggest otherwise.

"During a recession everyone is reminded that all the stuff, all the money that the culture worships in boom times is truly insignificant next to the important things: family, friends, good health," says Bob Hoffman, chief creative officer of Boston's Gearon Hoffman marketing firm. "The Life is good brand has done a great job reminding its customers that there is a lot about life that's good irrespective of the stock market or the current value of your home."

That's not to say Life is good is immune to the downturn, but in this company's case it's all relative. Last month Everything's Jake in Harvard Square, one of 125 independently owned stores known as Genuine Neighborhood Shoppes that carry a full line of Life is good gear, closed - the first such vendor to do so, according to Jacobs.

Until last year the company, whose annual sales top $100 million, had never had a year with less than 30 percent growth. In 2008 it grew only 10 percent, a slowdown that Jacobs notes (in apropos parlance) is "not exactly something you bum out about." Especially since the company hasn't spent a dime on advertising. In this way - and plenty of others - Life is good has more in common with a booming corner of the pop-psychology market than the apparel industry.

"If there's one area that's counter-cyclical in a recession it's self-help," says Andrew Rosenthal of happier.com, a three-month-old website that aggregates what Rosenthal calls scientifically proven information from the self-help world. Positive messages like "Life is good," Rosenthal says, are like lifelines during hard times. "Studies show that a simple phrase can increase mindfulness, draw people to focus on what is going well and what they can control, and increase resilience, which is what's important right now," he says.

For some, yes. For others, like 19-year-old James Constantini, wisecracking is a more palatable option than feel-good sloganeering. Two years ago, while a senior at Weston High School, Constantini launched the "Life Sucks" line of T-shirts in direct response to what he sees as Life is good's naive world view. He says his newest line will include similar messages aimed at Wall Street and greedy people, as well as an image of crossed-out "Help Wanted" sign in a store window. According to Constantini sales are up 5 to 10 percent in the last three months.

"The soccer-mom brand [i.e. Life is good] doesn't resonate so much for people my age," says Constantini from his dorm room at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, where he's majoring in finance. "I think humor is very important right now. We've also taken a big stride to undercut Life is good by selling our shirts for $15 instead of $20. People need a break in this economy."

At least one person Constantini's age begs to differ. Arlen Manwaring recently moved to Boston from Syracuse, N.Y., and he serves ice cream at Emack and Bolio's on Newbury Street, across from the Life is good boutique. Manwaring doesn't own any of the company's products, nor does he imagine he'll make be making any purchases, but the message is getting through.

"I like to see people wearing it," he says. "It's like they're looking up, not looking down."

Bobbie Connor, a 32-year-old nurse from Pittsburgh who recently bought a Life is good T-shirt during a visit to Boston, says she feels guilty because she hasn't been affected at all by the recession. "I'm young and hopeful that things will be back to normal soon."

If optimism is the quality common to Life is good fans, it's no surprise that travelers form a hefty slice of the brand's customer base. While some 4,500 stores carry Life is good merchandise, many of the Genuine Neighborhood Shoppes are in airports and resort towns like Palm Springs, Calif., Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Key West, Fla.

Ted Nelson, CEO of the branding firm Mechanica, says that we're in real trouble if things get not-so-good for Life is good.

"Because it's generally purchased while enjoying a pleasant event, such as a vacation, during which its sentiment is especially apt, [Life is good] maintains a stubborn, even inverse, relationship with one's day-to-day reality," Nelson says.

Life is good was tested once before, not by the company's customers but its employees. In the days following 9/11 a number of managers approached Bert Jacobs and said that they weren't feeling right about spreading the company's signature tidings. Some had lost friends in the attacks. The news was all about anthrax and terrorism and tips on turning your basement into a bunker. Maybe life wasn't so good, and maybe this was not the message the American people wanted to hear.

But the company forged ahead, launching its first (wildly successful) nationwide fund-raiser. Jacobs calls its the pivotal moment in his business life.

"Our company has this fantastic positive energy and our brand is capable of bringing people together," he says. "We know there's trauma and violence and hardship. Life is good isn't the land of Willy Wonka. We're not throwing Frisbees all day. We live in the real world. But you can look around you and find good things any time."