This apparel and accessories firm manages to stay relevant to its market by designing straight from the heart. This apparel and accessories firm manages to stay relevant to its market by designing straight from the heart. Lions, tigers, and bears? Not quite.

Try monkeys, giraffes, and skulls with crossbones. Either way, the same reaction ensues when people see Paul Frank characters: Oh, my! And whether it’s a 16-year-old high school student or parents in their late 20s, what draws people to Paul Frank Industries’ merchandise is a tactic that’s simple yet fitting for any demographic. 

From the first hand-sewn vinyl purse created by co-founder Paul Frank Sunich in Ryan Heuser’s garage to the most recent iteration of lovable monkey icon Julius in the children’s book Only In Dreams, each product holds a special place in its creator’s heart. 

“When you go back to the beginning, we were simply making things for the purity of making them. They excited us creatively,” said Ryan Heuser, co-founder and president of Paul Frank Industries. “We didn’t pay attention to making a balanced line or appealing to a certain demographic. We made things that were special to us, and it’s translated to the consumer throughout the years.”

The game changer

Heuser founded Paul Frank Industries in 1995 with some friends after leaving his public relations position at Mossimo. The company had no marketing budget, which meant the team had to get creative in spreading the Paul Frank brand to the masses. “We just marketed intuitively,” said Heuser. “First and foremost, your product is the best form of marketing you have, so if you make your product undeniable, it will speak for itself.”

Step one: make a great product. Step two? Tap into people’s emotions by not selling the product but rather leading them to it. “The element of discovery was key,” Heuser said. “Making a great product and having people seek it out gave them the feeling they were in the know and part of a secret society.”

Approaching marketing from such a perspective is a game changer, Heuser said, so taking out an ad in a magazine was not an option. The company instead relied on viral marketing, setting up key product placements on the right people at the right time, including celebrities, athletes, and DJs. 

But it wasn’t simply about throwing up a banner behind a band at a venue. “It was more about taking the lead guitarist’s guitar and wrapping it with Paul Frank artwork,” Heuser said. “A lot of the strategy lies in the subtlety, creating value with implied endorsements. Those speak more to kids than a guy appearing in an ad wearing your clothes.”

Conspiracy of fun

Fast-forward 14 years. Paul Frank Industries’ garage days are long gone, and the company boasts annual revenues of more than $100 million. The same approach to design remains but has now been translated into each of the 34 Paul Frank retail stores across the globe. Still, it wasn’t an easy translation. 

To sustain the company’s founding vision, which it refers to as a conspiracy of fun, the Paul Frank team had to find a way to stay passionate while becoming a formal business. “You look for the small triumphs, whether it be working with an artist you respect, teaming up with a licensee to make a new product, or opening a retail store in Dubai,” Heuser said. “Travel keeps you passionate about what you’re doing, and it keeps you aware of global trends. You’re always a student.”

The challenge in opening retail locations came down to taking a small group of people focused on design and marketing and turning them into retailers. Rather than getting overwhelmed, the team built on its expertise by designing a mock store in an empty building and testing it on its harshest critics—the team members themselves. 

“We again took a creative approach, making the fixtures and immersing ourselves in the consumer experience, saying, ‘I like this’ and ‘I don’t like this,’” Heuser said. “We were being our own worst critics, but, in the process, we whittled it down to what became the nucleus of our stores.”

Since opening its first store in San Francisco on The Haight, the company has evolved its retail strategy. The element of discovery still holds, but the agenda has changed to include prime showcasing retail real estate. 

In 2003, the company opened a store in South Coast Plaza, which houses some of the finest and most popular brands in the world. Since then, Paul Frank Industries has rolled the concept out to its Fashion Show Mall location in Las Vegas. But whether on the Las Vegas strip or tucked into New York City’s Mulberry Street, every Paul Frank store acts as a Paul Frank embassy. 

“Whether in the US or abroad, there should be a common feel with the color palates and the way we consider our fixtures, layouts, and staff,” Heuser said. “But each store has its own characteristics indigenous to its specific neighborhood.”

Genuine approach

Paul Frank Industries also keeps it simple when looking at how to keep its brand and products relevant. Over the years, the competition has become fierce, and knock offs can hit the street faster than originals. 

To maintain the Paul Frank brand mojo, the team constantly challenges itself to find new ways to stay in tune with its customers. With the understanding that the teens of 1995 are now in their mid- to late-20s, the company has started focusing on the parent-child experience, speaking to the adults and their toddlers and creating opportunities for them to do fun activities, such as silk-screening T-shirts or sewing, within the confines of a Paul Frank store. 

Heuser said the Paul Frank team holds arts and crafts dear to its creative process and realizes every computer course that goes into a school means an art, craft, or home economics course leaves. 

“These activities invite the parents into our retail environments, giving the next generation a chance to experience them,” said Heuser. “They need to be able to touch and feel stuff; it’s not just about what’s on the computer screen. By doing that in our retail stores, we remain relevant by way of activity.”

To keep its brand fresh, Paul Frank Industries has also moved into the licensing business. Although it’s been a practice since the company started, in the past, licensing was only done in small, niche ways, starting with eyewear. “We made eyewear because none of us could find cool sunglasses we wanted to wear,” said Heuser. “It’s never been about being a greedy corporate machine.”

By incubating the Paul Frank brand over the years, the company has grown organically within certain distribution channels, like mom-and-pop and department stores. Under the licensing scenario, the company is leveraging its brand strength, playing up its name and its trademark icon Julius, as well as diversifying the kinds of products to showcase its characters and designs. 

The company’s Web site has also undergone quite a change, moving from a product-driven site to more of a lifestyle site—a place where Paul Frank fans can come and experience the brand on a personal level. “I know all this sounds naïve, but this is how it happened, and this is part of the reason we’ve got staying power today,” Heuser said. 

“Julius was created for one of our founding partners’ girlfriends as a gift of love. We’ve kept a genuine approach to the marketplace we serve, and it’s something we’ll continue to take seriously going forward.”