From the December 1997 issue of Startups

If you own an Eskimo Joe's shirt, you own an automatic bond with anyone else you might see in the world who also owns an Eskimo Joe's shirt. With more than 10 million shirts sold, that's a lot of bonding. That sense of connectivity is a phenomenon that owner Stan Clark doesn't completely understand. But he does understand that the loyalty of his customers has allowed him to turn the "little beer bar" he and a buddy bought 22 years ago for $10,000 in the college town of Stillwater, Oklahoma, into a multimillion-dollar hospitality and merchandising machine that includes three restaurants and an internationally distributed apparel and accessories line.

Eskimo Joe's is a home-grown success story. For the first eight years, Clark's focus was on the bar and catering to Oklahoma State University students. T-shirt sales were an incidental component of his business.

But Clark beefed up T-shirt sales and added food service to the business in 1983. Today, you can't buy T-shirts in the bar; you go next door to a store called Joe's Clothes World Headquarters, visit the Eskimo Joe's retail stores in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Oklahoma, or order from catalogs that are distributed at the rate of more than one million per year. The casual clothing and a variety of other logo-emblazoned items now account for 70 percent of the $14 million in annual sales posted by Stan Clark Companies Inc. Not only do Eskimo Joe's customers keep coming back, but they happily pay to advertise for the company by enthusiastically wearing and displaying the logo. Clark may not have foreseen this when he went into the business, but he appreciates the phenomenon and is totally committed to operating in a way that will continue to inspire such dedication.

Clark offers these tips for building customer loyalty:

  • Choose a business you love. "If you're passionate about something, your enthusiasm will be infectious and you will excite the people around you," Clark explains.
  • Exceed your customers' expectations. "Whatever business you're in, doing more than what your customers reasonably expect can set you apart in the marketplace," Clark says.
  • Offer quality and value, and stand behind what you sell. "Provide an excellent product and guarantee it unconditionally," Clark says. "Give the customer a good deal--and make sure it's a good deal from the customer's perspective, not just yours."
  • Use your logo effectively. Clark admits he didn't completely appreciate the value of the distinctive Eskimo Joe's logo at first. "I mismanaged that asset for a number of years," he says. It took Clark several years to recognize the merchandise was a significant profit center for his company. These days, he stays on top of T-shirt sales and always makes sure that merchandise stays in stock.

It also helps, Clark says, if your logo is appealing. The Eskimo Joe's logo--a grinning Eskimo with a canine sidekick named Buffy--was designed by an 18-year-old commercial art student. "It's a fun logo. It conjures up a good feeling," Clark says. Today, this unique rendition of the traditional "boy and his dog" appears on a wide variety of items, including casual clothing, ties, golf balls and a computer screensaver. "If it's a product we knew people were buying anyway, we thought they might buy it from us if it had our logo on it," Clark says.

  • Protect your logo by registering it as a trademark. Clark will not overlook any unauthorized use of the Eskimo Joe's logo. "It's the most valuable asset we own, and we've got to protect it," he says. He tailors his action to the situation: A nonprofit organization might be gently reminded that the logo is protected as a registered trademark, and that permission is required for its use. A commercial enterprise trying to make money off the image will receive a more strongly worded cease-and-desist message from Clark's attorney.
  • Listen to your customers. Customers will tell you what they want and support you when you provide it. "We conduct customer focus groups, we put out comment cards and we solicit input," Clark says. Customers let him know what products to add to the retail stores and catalog, and what items to change on the menu in the bar and restaurants.
  • Treat your employees with the same respect and concern you give your customers. "Our people create the magic in the service process," Clark says. "If you're ever going to have loyal customers, you've got to have quality people. We can only expect our team members to treat our customers as well as we treat them. If our people are attentive--if they make people feel welcome and special--the customer will want to recreate that feeling by coming back. If, on the other hand, the customer perceives an attitude of indifference, at the very best, they'll be disappointed, and they may never come back. All the hype means nothing at that moment of truth."
  • Give back to the community. In September, Eskimo Joe's sponsored its 10th annual Juke Joint Jog, a fund-raiser for the Stillwater Area United Way. Whenever possible, Clark honors requests to contribute to civic events by providing door prizes and financial support. "Our customer focus groups have indicated that people remember the community service things long after they've forgotten what our last promotion was," Clark says.
  • Correct mistakes quickly and gracefully. How you handle a mistake often says more about your company than what happens when things are going right. It's an opportunity, Clark says, to turn a negative into a positive. Customers who are dissatisfied with a meal at one of his restaurants don't pay for it. Returns on merchandise are accepted at any point--sometimes even years after the item was purchased.
  • Have fun with your customers. Clark insists the primary reason for his success is that he knows how to have a good time. Of the early days, he says, "We didn't just serve our customers, we partied with them. And that had a lot to do with why they wanted the T-shirts." They also wanted the T-shirts because they had become loyal Eskimo Joe's customers--and they remain loyal customers today.

Tips From Business Start-Ups

1. Find out what your customers want and provide it. Don't guess; ask them through surveys, focus groups and at every other opportunity.

2. Dazzle them with service they'll tell their friends about. Be so remarkable they can't help talking about you.

3. Create a sense of belonging. Form "customer clubs" that offer special benefits and status.

4. Be responsive. Don't make your customers wait for service--not on the phone, not in line at your store. Take care of their needs immediately.

5. Make customers feel welcome. Greet people enthusiastically when they walk through the door.

6. Never attempt to deceive your customers in any way; they'll find out, and they'll never come back.

7. Keep your facility clean. How well you care for your store or office is a sign of how much you care about your customers.

8. Reward your customers. Offer frequent-buyer programs, volume discounts or other incentives that show how much you appreciate each order.

9. If it's wrong, make it right. When you make a mistake, apologize and correct it right away--whether it's your fault or not.

10. Communicate with your customers. Newsletters, advertisements, in-store signs and direct mail are just a few ways you can let your customers know they're valued.


Every time she wears her Eskimo Joe's T-shirt, Jacquelyn Lynn encounters at least one person she's never met who recognizes the logo.

Contact Source

Eskimo Joe's, (800) 256-JOES, (405) 377-0799, http://www.eskimojoes.com