Label Networks’ photo of a girl wearing an original TWLOHA’s T-shirt in 2008.

At the recent YPulse youth marketing conference in San Francisco May 25, one of the keynote speakers was Jamie Tworkowski, the founder of the highly successful non-profit organization, To Write Love on Her Arms. Like many in the audience, I was once again impressed by his story, which truly started as a letter written about a girl, Renee, dealing with drugs and depression. This letter by Jamie had developed into what we call a Love Movement, which you can see across high schools and college campuses. Young men and women wearing Love-inspired graphic T-shirts, looking to each other for support, and creating their own campaigns to deal with life’s situations. It’s launched a different kind of music, fashion style, and growing subculture of hope.

As Jamie put it, “It’s not just an emo issue.” TWLOHA has mushroomed beyond its original 200 T-shirt campaign to raise money for one girl’s drug treatment plan, and has become an amazing example of the power of T-shirts to launch an entire movement.

Which takes me back to 2006, and an interview by ex-Apple entrepreneur, Guy Kawasaki, which later made it’s way into his latest book. He asked me in a “10 Questions” format, as a youth culture “expert” what type of business I would launch if I could (other than the one I was in)?

My answer: There’s opportunity for true lifestyle brands that cross over into every aspect of a young person’s life such as a T-shirt company. People may laugh, but look at Volcom. 57.3% of young people in America buy ten to fifteen T-shirts per year, making T-shirts one of the highest grossing markets within the youth fashion industry. This “T-shirt” company would be online, but only the pinnacle of much more underneath.

I would also get it into special boutiques in Japan first. Even as a U.S.-based company, I would do pop-up retail. This “T-shirt” brand can sponsor up-and-coming artists, perhaps spin-off a record label and an online entertainment division (which works on getting sponsored artists and athletes into video games), then quickly move into the $13 billion denim market by getting the tightly woven high-end denim from Japan, with Italian stitching and dyes and selling clothes in the USA.

From there, the “T-shirt” brand would do footwear. All along keep the accessories coming -not just jewelry, but cell phone and iPod cases. The “T-shirt” brand would also have graffiti and street artists involved in many aspects, including exhibitions and various elements of design, which of course will get picked up by the Dews, Motorola’s, and Toyotas. This “T-shirt” brand from the start will also have a unique non-profit collaboration from which a percentage of profits are delivered.”

Neon graphics, with new messages of hope such as Alive, and Love from TWLOHA.

Cut to 2010, and Jamie’s amazing organization and if you look at the business aspects of what he’s created, much can be learned. One of the most contagious aspects of TWLOHA are the T-shirt designs. Big bold graphics, off-center type, on T-s with neon colors that are still trending right now with young people. According to Jamie, “90% of their funding comes from sales of T-shirts.”

Yet, as he put it, “We don’t talk about money.” Instead, their site, Tweets, Facebook, and YouTube channels all talk about hope. And they have raised more than $700,000 for treatment and recovery centers for young people.

“We have achieved authenticity because we communicate the same story as if we are writing to 1 person. We connect with our audience because of the language we use. This language, and our design is of utmost importance and we’ve built trust.”

The other aspect to their success is that TWLOHA is very tied with the music industry and musicians. Jamie, who originally worked for Quiksilver, and then Hurley as a surf rep in central Florida, was also a major fan of music. His first idea for the T-shirt font graphics came from watching Coldplay who at the time wore black T’s and words in big white fonts.

To raise the money needed for Renee’s treatment (go to for the whole story), he made 200 T-shirts, with “To Write Love on Her Arms” based on what Renee had done to herself with a razorblade, and added the “story” inside each shirt. As Jamie explained, “The title was too long -it sounded more like the name of a Fallout Boy song than a T-shirt brand.”

Once he got the shirts, he went to a Switchfoot show and was backstage with the lead singer whom he knew, and the singer said he’d wear the shirt. That kicked off the viral marketing effects of the T-shirt campaign, and eventually more and more musicians became a part of the movement.

Love Movement graphics–highly popular shirt.

Today, TWLOHA has a booth on the Vans Warped Tour, and a traveling booth with Bamboozle, among other music events. They are so connected with music that Jamie won the MTV Good Woody Award -the only non-musician person/group to win such as award.

This connection with music resonates heavily with youth culture, leading to a successful 30 college campus tour where “U Chapters” meet, hold events, and provide resources for suicide prevention and depression. TWLOHA also includes a highly successful intern program of 6-10 young people who are trained to respond to messages, emails, blogs, tweets, and posts. The all live together in a bungalow in central Florida, which is where TWLOHA started, for 3-4 months.

Overall, TWLOHA is a success story via new media, musicians, and T-shirts to get the message out, fund raise, and as tools for effective viral marketing. Add to that, the messages of hope and language used, and you can see why the campaign resonates across borders. Today, TWLOHA has perpetuated an entire Love Movement that’s caught on far beyond North America, as it seeps its way globally.