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Lead Balloon Ep. 13 - The Squatty Potty Saga and the Science of Going Viral

With Harmon Brothers CEO Benton Crane: Promoting anti-poo-stink spray and constipation remedies may not be glamorous, but it is highly profitable for the viral video mavens at Harmon Brothers.



Right or wrong, there are some products that most PR and marketing professionals want nothing to do with.


The Squatty Potty, a plastic platform that purports to alleviate constipation, is certainly not any conventional marketer's dream client.

But under the guidance of the Harmon Brothers agency, this ignoble brand launched the most successful viral marketing video of all-time, landing hundreds of millions of video views and millions of dollars in sales. And they owe it all to an animatronic unicorn who poops rainbow ice cream.


Harmon Brothers' social media success was even recognized with a 2016 Webby Award, and other notable campaigns have included the OraBrush, Poo-Pourri toilet spray and Chatbooks.


In this episode, Harmon Brothers CEO Benton Crane tells the story of the agency's origin and trajectory, explaining the fusion of science and art that powers their reliable viral successes. It turns out that there is no such thing as a "bad client" for an agency willing to embrace data-driven outlandish creativity, irreverence and poop jokes.


Plus, Boeing's retired VP of Communications Jim Schlueter weighs in. Learn more about his family's project alextheartist.com.



Transcript:


Dusty Weis:

The wildly successful viral ad campaign for the Squatty Potty is unconventional, even for a decade that brought us the Ice Bucket Challenge, a Cubs World Series and Donald Trump as president. If you're one of the tens of millions of people who have seen this inexplicably outlandish video, it's unlikely you'll ever forget it.


Character in Video:

This is where your ice cream comes from: the creamy poop of a mystic unicorn.


Dusty Weis:

The Squatty Potty product itself is a simple platform, a stool designed to position your legs in a way that relieves constipation while you're sitting on the toilet. To a conventional marketing agency, an account like this one is a nightmare come true. After all, how in the world are you even going to get anybody to take you seriously, let alone pay attention to your value proposition? Traditionally, it's the kind of product doomed to the cringe-inducing 3:00 AM infomercial, and no marketer wants to be left holding the product management responsibilities on that.


Dusty Weis:

But to the Utah-based Harmon Brothers creative agency, the Squatty Potty presented not a Gordian knot of social taboos and suppressed embarrassments, but an opportunity. Channeling Millennial sensibilities and the still emerging power of social media video, their resulting promotion is a colorful acid trip of rainbow-colored unicorns who excrete ice cream from that orifice, outlandish characters and set design and of course, fourth grade toilet humor.

Character in Video:

Soft serve straight from a sphincter.


Dusty Weis:

But Harmon Brothers CEO Benton Crane says that video, universally recognized as the most successful viral ad campaign of all time, almost didn't happen.


Benton Crane:

Initially, they told us no. They thought it was just absolute brand suicide to put a pooping unicorn on their brand.


Dusty Weis:

In this episode, Benton shares the tale of how the Harmon Brothers and their poop jokes have driven a billion and a half video views and more than 350 million dollars in sales by seeing gold where everyone else just sees a regular old turd. In the process, they've forever changed the internet and the field of marketing. I'm Dusty Weis from Podcamp Media. This is Lead Balloon, a podcast about PR, marketing and branding nightmares and the well-meaning communications professionals who lived them.


Dusty Weis:

Thanks for tuning in. I like to think that we have a pretty healthy appreciation for the absurd on this show. This is definitely one episode that is really out there. I love it, and I think you will, too. But before we dig in, please do make sure that you're subscribed to Lead Balloon in your favorite podcast app. Follow Podcamp Media on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to see what else we've got going on and if you leave me a review on iTunes, I will read it on the show, like this review from Cayo Nation who says, "I love the idea and the mission to the podcast. We all make mistakes and that's okay. The editing makes me feel like I'm right in the Podcamp Media studios," which is awesome, Cayo Nation, except for that right now, for the duration of COVID, Podcamp Media is based wholly in my basement and I would not wish a studio visit on my worst enemy. I do, however, hope to be announcing some news on that front in short order, so stay tuned for that.


Dusty Weis:

I think it's a pretty common fear, or an aversion at least, for professional communicators to have this dread of working an account like the Squatty Potty. After all, marketing is the domain of Mad Men, million-dollar Coca Cola spots, Matthew McConaughey's soliloquy on elegance while he's driving his Lincoln, Johnny Depp incoherently hocking some cologne in a 60-second black and white art film. This field is traditionally about big brands and big prestige. So for a lot of agencies, a fear of being stuck forever with the "boring products" would probably prevent them from taking work from a company that specialize in stools that help you poop.


Dusty Weis:

But not so at Harmon Brothers, the Provo, Utah-based ad agency that chooses humor and creativity over prestige and elegance. To start with, I asked their CEO how the firm found itself so uniquely positioned in this business.


Benton Crane:

Obviously, I'm not one of the brothers... My name is Benton Crane... but I am a cousin so I grew up close to the Harmon brothers, the ones with the last name Harmon, particularly Jeff Harmon. He and I are a month apart and so we grew up... From the time we were knee-high, we were best buddies and also rivals and we had plenty of fisticuffs throughout our years growing up. We kind of created a relationship where we could disagree, duke it out and then five minutes later, be ready to go grab lunch together. That type of relationship has kind of served us well in business. We have a pretty high level of trust, but yet we also have a high level of candor where we can disagree, see things from different points of view and still come out the other side just fine.


Dusty Weis:

That's very rare in the business world and I hope you recognize just how fortunate you are to have that.


Benton Crane:

We didn't realize how rare it was until we had a handful of disagreements in the office around people who didn't grow up with us, the team members who have joined since, and they kind of saw things get heated between us for a minute and they kind of had this moment of fear like, "Is everything about to end? Is the partnership falling apart here?" But then we go through our disagreement and then, "Hey, do you want to go grab a burger?" and we're good to go and so the team has kind of gotten used to seeing that dynamic and being okay with it.


Dusty Weis:

What about your background sparked this interest in... I'm going to be honest... a complete and total knack for making these weird, hilarious videos? Whenever I meet somebody who's in a creative pursuit like this, I assume, "Okay, they probably made indie films when they were in college," or "They were probably involved in improv classes." What was the creative spark that really drives some of this just weird creativity that just oozes from every orifice at Harmon Brothers?


Benton Crane:

That's a great question. Admittedly, the Harmon brothers are much more creative than I am. We all grew up poor but they grew up really poor, and they kind of had to learn to entertain themselves at a really young age without having the toys and the bikes and all the things that most kids typically grew up with. Instead, they would entertain themselves with cardboard boxes and pieces of paper. I remembered going and visiting and they would build these elaborate marble courses just out of paper and tape and cardboard. They're the type of courses that you now see YouTube videos made out of. Of course, there was no one to film it back then, but they were making these elaborate courses all over the house and really developing this high level of creativity. That really came out when they did the Orabrush campaign.


Dusty Weis:

Just as every superhero has their origin story, the Harmon brothers owe the existence of their business to a chance meeting with a retired biochemist. Robert Wagstaff, affectionately known as Dr. Bob, was the inventor of the Orabrush. That's a funny-shaped little toothbrush designed specifically for cleaning off your tongue and sold as a remedy for bad breath. Dr. Bob tells ABC News that he tried to market these things for the better part of a decade and not shockingly, Americans weren't pounding down the door to add yet another step to their personal hygiene routines.


Dr. Bob:

We actually put it in stores and would watch people and they would walk right by it just like it wasn't even there.


Dusty Weis:

Baffled, poor old Dr. Bob dug a little bit deeper still into his own pockets, shelling out 40 grand to produce and air a traditional late night infomercial to hock his product. It was 2009.


Benton Crane:

The infomercial sold something like eight brushes. It was a total flop and so kind of in desperation, he took it to a marketing class at the local university, BYU, and as a term project, there was a group of students who took it and did research on the Orabrush and on the last day of class, they delivered the report that said, "Our research shows us that only eight percent of people would be willing to buy an Orabrush online. Therefore, we don't think you should sell this online." Jeff Harmon was sitting at the back of the classroom and he raised his hand and he said, "Eight percent is millions and millions of people. Why don't you just focus on them?" Dr. Bob the inventor was in the room and he was like, "Can I talk to you after class?" and so Jeff and Dr. Bob connected, and Dr. Bob didn't have any money to pay Jeff and so he gave him an old motorcycle in exchange for his services and Jeff came in and made this two-and-a-half-minute YouTube ad for Orabrush.


Character in Video:

The smart viewer out there will know to check your bad breath, you noticed that we checked our tongue. 90% of bad breath comes from bacteria and residue on the tongue. On your tongue.


Benton Crane:

And the timing was just perfect because Google had just purchased YouTube and prior to that point, it had never been an ad platform. It was just a viral video platform where people shared their cat videos and stuff. They wanted to turn it into an ad platform and Orabrush was one of the first ads ever to air on YouTube. The interesting thing about it was that it was this two-and-a-half-minute long ad that everyone was saying, "That will never work. You can't do a two-and-a-half-minute ad. It either has to be a full on infomercial and run half-hour spots on television or it needs to be a 30-second spot." But Jeff reached out to YouTube and he asked, "Can you give me a skip button so that people can choose for themselves whether or not they want to watch this ad?" YouTube was like, "Yeah, let's try it." They kind of had a start-up mentality of, "Yeah, let's just test and see what works," and so they built the skip button that, to this day, when you go watch a YouTube video, you still see that skip button.


Benton Crane:

I don't think anyone knew it at the time but now looking back over a decade later, I personally believe that was one of the biggest innovations in advertising in decades, probably, because I can't think of anything else that has shifted the balance of power more. If you think about it, historically, advertisers used to be able to force-feed us whatever crap they wanted to show us.


Dusty Weis:

And it was crap.


Benton Crane:

A lot of it was. And they just assumed, "We have a captive audience. We'll show them whatever we want to show them and they'll just have to deal with it," and commercial breaks were miserable experiences because of that. But that tiny little button shifted the power into the hands of the viewer and now all of a sudden, advertisers are forced to create something that people actually want to watch. And not only did they watch it, but then they comment on it, they share it, they talk to their friends about it and of course, that's what led to things like our Poo-Pourri campaign and Squatty Potty and Purple Mattresses and Chatbooks, these ads that have scaled businesses by tens of millions of dollars. It's all a function of giving people something that they actually want to watch.


Dusty Weis:

And it's brilliant in that way and of course, the Paul Harvey rest of the story here is that you guys at Harmon Brothers have carved out a pretty prime niche for your business by making really creative and... I'm going to say it... really weird ads that go viral on Facebook.


Dusty Weis:

Your most well-known work has got to be the viral ad campaign for the Squatty Potty, which most people my age, our age, have seen it, but I have listeners that probably haven't and so I'll try to describe it briefly. There is an animatronic unicorn who poops out rainbow sherbet and is suffering from constipation and finds her relief in the Squatty Potty, a little stool that helps elevates her legs into a better position for evacuation.


Character in Video:

That's because our bodies were made to poop in a squat, and now there's a product that lets you squat in your own home. Introducing the Squatty Potty. No, Squatty Potty is not a joke and yes, it will give you the best poop of your life, guaranteed.


Dusty Weis:

Other well-known spots have included Poo-Pourri, Chatbooks, more recently I was a big fan of the Ladder Luchador campaign, which cracked me up, and this new Office Takeover spot for Profits Unlimited, which I'm going to ask you about in a little bit. But lest anyone who's unfamiliar with your work should attempt to scoff right now, over the course of seven years, your work has delivered 1.5 B-billion views and 350 million dollars in sales for your heretofore low profile clients.


Benton Crane:

Those are conservative estimates.


Dusty Weis:

Conservative estimates. Good, good. There's no science to going viral. I would posit that it's an art form. Taking in the entire body of your work, how would you describe the style at Harmon Brothers?


Benton Crane:

Well, I'd probably start by refuting what you just said about there being no science behind it and it's an art form. Actually, the reality, if you pull back the curtains, is that it's science meets art.


Dusty Weis:

I was always told that science and art didn't interact well so I'm taking notes here.

Benton Crane:

By trade, I am an economist and a statistician. I'm a numbers geek. I'm a spreadsheet geek. In fact, I started my career in Washington, D.C. as a statistician at the Census Bureau and then later, I worked in the Intelligence Community as a data analyst. When the brothers left Orabrush to do... The Poo-Pourri campaign was the first one that we did. That was back in 2013.


Dusty Weis:

Poo-Pourri, in case you're unfamiliar with the product, is a treatment for toilet water that's designed to suppress the smell of your bodily functions. Once again, not exactly a product that the Madison Avenue agencies were tripping over themselves to land as an account.


Character in Video:

Simply spritz Poo-Pourri in the bowl to create a film on the water's surface that actually traps the odors in their porcelain prison. And when your little astronauts splash down and make contact with the film, they release Poo-Pourri's pleasant aromas.


Dusty Weis:

But the Harmon brothers were finding their niche and looking for someone with a solid business sense to help them grow their brand.


Benton Crane:

They needed a data geek to come help them test all of their creative assumptions, so that's why I joined the team. That was when we founded Harmon Brothers. There was four of us, Daniel, Neal and Jeff were the three brothers and myself. What we created was this really interesting marriage where you come up with a creative idea and then you test it using data, and you take that data and you say, "What is it teaching us?" and then you feed that back into the creative process and you adjust your creative ideas and then you test again. And then you rinse and repeat this cycle over and over and over again.


Benton Crane:

Every campaign that we put out into the wild, people don't realize it but there are literally hundreds of tests that go on behind the scenes to find out, "Are we doing this right?" People come to us and they say, "Hey, can you make us a viral video?" But the reality is that virality is completely random. It's unpredictable. You can't plan on virality. There's no recipe that says, "If you do A, B, C and D, you're going to go viral." You can do things that might raise your chances, but you cannot predict... Anyone who tells you that you can, run away from them because by nature, virality is random.


Benton Crane:

But yet, if you look at the results of our campaigns where they're consistently driving millions and millions of dollars in sales for our clients, getting hundreds of millions of views on these campaigns, that's not by accident. It's not by random nature. It's not by luck. It's actually through this marriage of art and science that we test and then we create and then we test and create, test and create over and over and over again until we find what resonates and what works.


Dusty Weis:

And I love that approach. I think that there's really something to that because it's possible to be creative and scientific at the same time. It's just not...


Benton Crane:

Common?


Dusty Weis:

Common. That's the word that I was searching for. But if I was going to apply adjectives to the style of the videos that Harmon Brothers creates, absurdist, surrealist, irreverent, rooted in internet meme culture and very Millennial in its sensibilities, and it's advertising that just makes sense to a generation that grew up watching Adult Swim, cartoons on Cartoon Network. Is that intentional or is that a result of this process that you have of refining your ideas and targeting a Millennial audience?


Benton Crane:

I would say it's more of a result of the process because here's the thing, ultimately what it comes down to is that in order to sell, you have to entertain. It's only through entertaining that you can hold somebody's attention long enough to actually convince them to do something or to buy something or to donate to a cause. Whatever it is that you're trying to accomplish, you can't get there unless you have somebody's attention, and you can't have their attention unless you entertain them.


Benton Crane:

We are always thinking about, "How do we entertain? And then once we entertain, how do we convince?" There's education, there's building credibility, there's overcoming concerns. There's all of these things that happen on the sales side, on the education side, but none of that matters if we can't entertain. To your question, why do we end up with these things that are... I like the word you used... absurdist, it's because we know that we have to create something that's so fun that you will voluntarily spend your time on it in a world where you scroll through your Facebook and you have literally limitless content that you can spend your time on.


Dusty Weis:

You cited the Poo-Pourri campaign as sort of the defining moment for the agency where you guys realized, "Hey, not only can we do this and are we good at it, but it's possible to be very profitable while doing this." I remember where I was the first time I saw the Poo-Pourri spot. I was sitting at work, scrolling through my Facebook feed like you're not supposed to when you're on the clock and I came across this ad and I was, at once, appalled and entertained. I didn't want to look but I did. I was almost overcome with this sense of caught with your hand in the cookie jar shame with, "If anybody walks up behind me and sees me watching this, they're going to have some questions."


Character in Video:

You would not believe the mother lode I just dropped and that's how I like to keep it, leaving not a trace that I would ever hear let alone that I just birthed a creamy behemoth from my cavernous bowels.


Dusty Weis:

A lot of your early subject matter dealt with some pretty taboo subjects. Why do you think that there was such a value in breaking these taboos?


Benton Crane:

Poo-Pourri was the first campaign that we did, and I had just left a career at Deloitte. It's a very prestigious consulting firm and I had a great career working in Intelligence Community. I uprooted my family and moved across the country to sell poop spray at Poo-Pourri. Oddly enough, when we got that video ready, the first people I showed it to were my in-laws. They were so utterly appalled by it. They did not even crack a smile. They didn't laugh at all. I think we were like two minutes in and I finally just turned it off and I was like, "If you haven't laughed yet, you're not going to." That was the moment where I was sitting there going, "What have I just done with my life and my career?" It was petrifying.


Benton Crane:

But then we went live with the video and the reaction was exactly the opposite of the in-laws. It was a smash hit. It resonated with people in amazing ways where historically, this subject of poo stink had been so taboo and so many people had grown up in families where it's just something that you don't talk about. You pretend like it doesn't exist and particularly for women, it was extra taboo, so I think our willingness to dive right into that, to make fun of it... If it's safe for us to do this, then it's safe for you to joke about this with your friends or talk about this subject. In fact, we cast that redheaded British woman specifically because we thought that a proper British woman, someone who you would expect to see at a tea party or something, she would be the last person on earth who you would ever expect to say those things.


Character in Video:

Whether you need to pinch a loaf at work, cut a rope at a party or lay a brick at your boyfriend's, your days of embarrassing smells or prairie dogging it are over.


Benton Crane:

And so the theory was that if we could make it safe for her to say those things, then it can be safe for you and I to talk about that. The world was just ready to break down that barrier, break down that taboo and so it just hit a chord and it resonated in amazing ways.


Dusty Weis:

Fast forward two years now, Squatty Potty is... I think renowned is the wrong word, but it's your most high profile success.


Character in Video:

This is where your ice cream come from: the creamy poop of a mystic unicorn. They're good at pooping. But you know who sucks at pooping? You do.


Dusty Weis:

I went to a concert at Wrigley Field in Chicago not long after that ad campaign started and I stayed with my brother-in-law and his at the time girlfriend in Wrigleyville there because it was close and we could walk and all that. I remember the morning after the show, I went in to use their bathroom and parked next to the John was a Squatty Potty. My reaction at the time was no less than delight. Here's this little plastic stool that is nothing special by any accounts and I had to take it for a test drive.


Benton Crane:

Of course.


Dusty Weis:

I wasn't not going to try the Squatty Potty. And then, I came flying out of that bathroom and I said, "Fred, you've got Squatty Potty, dude. That's so cool." Does that surprise you? It's a stool that you put your feet on while you poop.


Benton Crane:

It did surprise me in the beginning because quite frankly, when they came to us, their customer base was 55 year-old plus women who were constipated. All of their customers would buy it and then they would hide it in the master bathroom so that they never had to talk about it with anyone. They didn't want a guest to see it. It was so embarrassing that they had to have this stool next to their toilet, that they would never want to talk about that with anyone. Once again, we had to break down a taboo subject and break down barriers and once again, we looked for, "How can we make this safe? How can we make it okay for people to talk about?"


Character in Video:

When you sit on the porcelain throne, this muscle puts a kink in the hose and stops the Ben and Jerry's from sliding out smoothly.


Dusty Weis:

This spot's complete with a cartoon animation process but because it's a unicorn and rainbow soft serve, it's not quite as gross as it could be.


Character in Video:

And seriously, unicorn hemorrhoids? The glitter gets everywhere.


Benton Crane:

It was actually Jeff Harmon who came up with the idea to use ice cream as a metaphor for poop. The thinking was, "What is the furthest thing on earth from poop?" Poop is disgusting. It's smelly. It's stinky. It's horrific. And ice cream is the opposite of all of those things. It's delicious. It's tasty. Everything about ice cream is amazing. And then the subject went to, "Okay, well if we're going to use ice cream, what is the ice cream come out of?" And of course, we're theorizing all these different possibilities and we quickly realized that it can't be rooted in reality because anything that's rooted in reality is gross.


Dusty Weis:

I would argue that it's still a little bit gross to have it come out of a unicorn's butt, but...


Benton Crane:

But it worked.


Dusty Weis:

It worked.


Benton Crane:

Right? And so the thinking was, "Let's go as far from reality as possible," so of course, unicorn. It's a mythical character. But even then, if you went back through our creative process that we went through, you would both laugh and be appalled at some of the concepts that we worked on. At one point, the unicorn was going to be a massive Clydesdale-sized unicorn horse on the back of a food truck parked on a street corner in New York City and we would have a vendor there piping ice cream out of the butt of this giant Clydesdale unicorn, serving it to kids on the corner of New York City. I look back at that I'm like, "Oh man, that was a horrific..."


Benton Crane:

That was terrible, but it was through that process that we kept honing and refining, and one of our writers Dave Vance, he is the one who brought the medieval prince and this fairy tale setting, put the unicorn in that setting and that's what kind of completed all the pieces to take us out of reality and make sure that everything your eyes see on screen is safe. There's nothing gross that you see on screen, but everything your ears hear is pretty terrible. You're talking about a really, really taboo thing. It was one thing to talk about poo stink with Poo-Pourri but with Squatty Potty, we're talking about the biomechanics of how it happens, which is infinitely more gross. But because we took you so far outside of reality, we could make it safe.


Character in Video:

I scream, you scream and plop, plop, baby.


Dusty Weis:

So the Harmon Brothers had their concept for the Squatty Potty spot, a wisecracking prince and a magical unicorn pooping out rainbow ice cream, and selling that idea to the client would prove to be the agency's biggest challenge yet. Coming up after the break, the high stakes gamble that got them from concept to creation. Plus, Benton Crane redefines other duty as a sign.


Character in Video:

Here I am, I'm the CEO of the agency but everyone on set has nicknamed me Butt Wipe.


Dusty Weis:

That's coming up in a minute on Lead Balloon.


Dusty Weis:

This is Lead Balloon and I'm Dusty Weis. About a decade ago, I was a reporter and news anchor in Miami, Florida and I was thinking about making a transition into a career in public relations and marketing so I emailed a family friend, Jim Schlueter, the now retired vice president of communications at Boeing. A former journalist himself, Jim wrote me back some advice that would shape the trajectory of my career to this day.


Jim Schlueter:

If you feel like your company is making a difference and is challenging you, I think it satisfies the urge in us journalists to make something happen in your life. As for me, I don't think I can work in a consumer products company or agency promoting the next version of toothpaste or interest-bearing checking accounts.


Dusty Weis:

Preparing for my interview with Harmon Brothers CEO Benton Crane made me think back to that advice from Jim so I dialed him up to revisit the topic.


Jim Schlueter:

That's nothing against interest-bearing checking accounts and dog food and other things to get promoted but for me, personally, and knowing you like I know you, that if you found the field that really made a difference for you, participating in that field in communications, whichever version that is, it could be a very rewarding experience for you. That's something I didn't learn when I was in college. If you can find a calling, if you can find a job where on those good days you can't believe they're paying you to do this for a living, it really helps through those days where they can't pay you enough for what you're doing for them.


Dusty Weis:

Jim was right about me, and I think it holds true for a lot of people who go into PR and marketing. We want to do work that feels important to us, and that means different things for different people. It can be a big personal connection, it can be big prestige, it can be big exposure. But the pool of people for whom a tongue brush, poop spray or a toilet stool hold that sort of appeal is limited. It's not a dream assignment for most professional communicators and for some, I'd go so far as to call it a nightmare. But for the Harmon Brothers agency, the Squatty Potty account was just another chance to work their own patented brand of creative magic. In this case, a two-and-a-half-minute YouTube video featuring a unicorn who needed help pooping out ice cream.


Dusty Weis:

You guys built and refined this concept in-house and then you took it to a fellow by the name of Bobby Edwards, who owned the Squatty Potty company, along with his adorable elderly parents and you had to pitch them this idea. How confident were you going into that pitch? Take me inside the room when you told them what you wanted to do with their brand.


Benton Crane:

They had seen Poo-Pourri, of course, and they loved Poo-Pourri. In fact, Bobby's reaction was, "This should've been us." He was upset that Poo-Pourri found us before he did and so he came to us asking for a proposal and he was already a fan. He was a believer. He wanted to do something wild like that. But his parents didn't see the vision, his investors didn't see the vision, his board didn't see the vision, but we were kind of oblivious to that so honestly, we walked in, pitched them this idea of the unicorn and we just kind of had full confidence that it would be awesome.


Benton Crane:

Bobby was the only one of the group who caught the vision and so initially, they told us no. They thought it was just absolute brand suicide to put a pooping unicorn on their brand. The investors and the board told Bobby, "No way, no how." We thought that was the end of it but a few months later, Bobby came back to us and said, "Hey, guys. Let's do it. I'm ready to go." He didn't tell us at the time, but he did that behind the back of his board and his investors. He just knew that it was right and that it was the winning move to make and so he put his neck out on the line, literally. He was the CEO going against his board and his investors and if he had gotten it wrong, that would've been the end of his career at Squatty Potty.


Benton Crane:

We were totally oblivious to that. We didn't know any of it so we're just like, "Cool. We get to build a unicorn," and so dove in and went to work. It was actually three days before launch, Bobby pulled me aside and he was like, "Benton, this has to work because if it doesn't, I am so screwed."


Dusty Weis:

No pressure.


Benton Crane:

That was when I dug in and I found out like, "Wait, your board didn't approve this? The investors don't know about this?" Then, for the next 72 hours, he's so nervous that he's just sick, and then I'm getting so nervous that I'm sick and I'm like, "What have we done here?"


Dusty Weis:

Were you on set for the taping of the Squatty Potty spot?


Benton Crane:

I was. It was actually frosting, not ice cream, because ice cream will melt under the hot lights and so we used frosting. As we would pipe that frosting through the butt of the unicorn, between each take, somebody had to wipe the unicorn's butt to get it all clean and that was my job. I was sitting there with wipes and between each take, I would wipe that unicorn's butt and so here I am, I'm the CEO of the agency but everyone on set has nicknamed me Butt Wipe.


Dusty Weis:

Hey, there's something to be said about a CEO that's willing to stand out on the front lines and take one for the team like that. Speaking as a former film school wannabe, for a three-minute infomercial, that's a pretty elaborate piece of world building. The set, the costumes, the props, the animatronic unicorn, who designed that and how? And how did you bring that from vision to fruition?


Benton Crane:

There is a character/ puppeteer artist in Salt Lake named Chris Hansen. In fact, he's done work in a lot of Hollywood films. Hell Boy is one that comes to mind. He actually has a pretty long list of films that he's done work in. Incredibly talented guy. He made the unicorn and Daniel, our chief creative officer Daniel Harmon, he was the creative director on that one and so he guided the design of the unicorn. It was really fascinating how it morphed from... Like I told you, we were thinking Clydesdale-looking unicorn, big old horse, and it morphed into almost gerbil unicorn. You go look at it and it looks more gerbil than it does horse, and that was Daniel's artistic touch on that, in terms of refining it into something that's very cute, very approachable, very lovable and very cartoon-esque with the big eyes and whatnot.


Dusty Weis:

Was it hard on set to coach the talent and the crew through what was clearly an absurd and ridiculous script? How did you get people to keep a straight face on that set? Is there a blooper reel of people just losing it?


Benton Crane:

Over and over and over again. The Prince, Wes Tolman, he was phenomenal. He went into character. The prince is borderline douchey but kind of oblivious to it and Wes was able to go into that character and just nail it. Man, Wes would just deliver these lines and then everybody on set is just holding it in, holding it in, holding it in, waiting for the director to yell cut so that everybody could just bust up laughing. That just happened over and over and over again. It was hilarious.


Character in Video:

Pooping will never be the same, and neither will ice cream.


Dusty Weis:

The internet seemed to agree. Squatty Potty's spot went viral on Facebook and YouTube, racking up hundreds of millions of views. Commercial made an especially large splash, so to speak, among the Millennial cohort and as an avowed Millennial, I can tell you that yes, it did come up at parties. The video also won a Webby Award in 2016, which celebrates viral internet successes, and the brand ran up millions in sales. It's now renowned as the most successful company to ever emerge from the TV show Shark Tank. You can find Squatty Potty everywhere from Bed Bath & Beyond... That's the high-end bamboo model, mind you... to Target and Walmart. Not so bad for a poop joke with high production value. And the Harmon Brothers... Well, the agency has grown to include dozens of creatives, an online school for marketing techniques and a growing portfolio of new clients.


Dusty Weis:

Let's fast forward it a little bit now. You've recently trotted out a new campaign, the office crasher character who comes in, lampoons this stuffy, greedy investment advisor. Again, investment advisors, not exactly something that marketing people are pushing and shoving to land the investment advisor account. It's what you would typically, traditionally consider a boring client. You guys have been doing this for years now. Take me through your process as you applied it to this new campaign and how you wound up where you did.


Benton Crane:

The client is Banyan Hill and the product is called Profits Unlimited, which is basically a subscription service that basically has a professional investor send you a newsletter that tells you exactly what trades he's making and when he's making them. It makes it so that a non-sophisticated investor, if they want to, they can just pull up their Robinhood app or their Etrade app or whatever and they can just follow along and just buy and sell the same stocks that the professional does. It's a really valuable service, but it's one where it's such a noisy, crowded market that's so hard to find any credibility in, meaning the levels of skepticism in that market are just off the charts.


Benton Crane:

The challenge in this case is we say, "Okay, if we're going to overcome that skepticism, we're going to have to spend a significant amount of time building credibility around this and making it believable, making it something that you would go, 'Oh, yeah. I can give this a try,'" and so to do that, once again we're like, "Okay, if we can catch your attention and hold it for long enough, then we can probably overcome concerns and build credibility around this highly, highly skeptical marketplace." That's where this idea of this almost everyday funny guy takes over the office of a rich, out of touch financial advisor. And then of course, the financial advisor is out hunting rare white rhinos that are going extinct and he's out of touch, living on his yacht and that sort of thing and meanwhile, we're able to break into his office and kind of take over his office and have fun doing that.


Benton Crane:

That's kind of the entertaining side of it and then the education side of it comes in where we spend the time to build the credibility and overcome those concerns that even though it's only a four-dollar per month product... That's super cheap... the barrier to actually convince people to try it is very high. That's why we needed a high level of entertainment.


Dusty Weis:

What fascinates me about the Harmon Brothers is their record for reliably producing viral results. A buddy of mine who works at an ad agency likes to vent about this sometimes. He'll have clients walk into his office and say, "I want you to make me a viral video," and he has to pump the brakes and say, "No, you want me to make you a video and then you want that video to go viral. In order to get that video to go viral, we're going to have to take some risks, do something unconventional and possibly get outside your comfort zone here." Have you had clients approach the Harmon Brothers before to say, "Hey, make use a viral video," and you go to them and you say, "Here's a great idea for how your video can go viral," and they go, "Whoa, slow down there. That's a little too much"?


Benton Crane:

Without a doubt. Honestly, pretty much every single campaign that we do, there are ideas that are too much where kind of the client and everyone in the room is like, "Yep, that probably crosses a line somewhere." We always say you can't know where the line is if you don't ever cross it but because we have our testing methodology, we can find out very early in the process when we've crossed the line and then we can back up. But yeah, you're right. Some companies think they want this, but yet they don't have the risk tolerance and the stomach to handle a pooping unicorn or something wild like that.


Benton Crane:

But honestly, clients who come to us, they kind of know what they're signing up for. In fact, I can remember when we did the Chatbooks campaign, Nate Quigley, the CEO of Chatbooks, I remember we came out of the writing retreat and had this script and concept and we're all really excited about it. They were pumped. We were pumped. We knew we had a really solid start, but Nate actually reached out and he said, "Guys, can you crank it up even higher?" He goes, "I need you to turn it up to 11," and we were like, "Oh, yeah."


Dusty Weis:

Now we're talking.


Benton Crane:

Yeah. When a client comes to you and asks you to turn it up to 11, that's just music to your ears and so I think... If anyone's familiar with Chatbooks ad, there's this scene where there's a 10 or 11-year-old boy. He's the son of the main character. The main character's this mom who lives in this chaotic real mom scenario where everything is jut going crazy.


Benton Crane:

Anyway, this kid puts on his shoulder pads and his helmet and then he grabs an umbrella and goes up on the roof and jumps off the roof thinking that this umbrella is going to make him fly. It was a fun little gag because it was rooted in reality. Daniel Harmon had actually tried that as a kid. It's kind of this relatable moment where everyone who's been a 10-year-old boy can kind of relate to this idea of, "Hey, I'm invincible and I can fly with my umbrella," and so we created that stunt where this kid actually jumps off the roof and that was a direct result of Nate asking us to turn it up to 11.


Character in Video:

Jeffrey, get off the roof.


Character in Video:

Okay. Ow.


Dusty Weis:

In a lot of ways, you guys have been on the leading edge of a broader trend in marketing that we've seen play out over the last decade here. You guys were some of the pioneers. You were some of the first to go out there and take this absurdist, fun angle with marketing, but a lot of the big East Coast agencies are now moving into that space, too. You don't need to click through too many commercials on TV to see that commercials are getting weirder and more fun. Does that concern you? I listened to a podcast that you did recently where you said that when you see a company do well early on, they very often then take that success and get complacent with you. I don't worry about Harmon Brothers getting complacent but in the next decade, how do you see yourselves continuing to stay on that leading edge and continuing to push the boundaries?


Benton Crane:

If you think about it, most of our viewing habits have shifted to streaming, so Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO, Hulu, Disney+, and most of these don't have commercial breaks. Most of the viewing that we do nowadays is commercial-free. From a viewer perspective, that's awesome. That's amazing. From an advertiser's perspective, that's a really scary proposition.


Dusty Weis:

It's end of the world kind of stuff.


Benton Crane:

Yeah, and so if you kind of think about it, there are multibillion-dollar brands all over the world who are really nervous about how they're going to be able to continue to reach us. It's my personal belief and our personal belief here at Harmon Brothers that the worlds of entertainment and the worlds of advertising are going to continue to melt into each other in very fun, oftentimes imperceptible and very natural ways.


Benton Crane:

For example, the product placement industry right now is absolutely booming. When you see a Coke can sitting on the table in a Netflix show, you better believe that Coke paid to have that Coke can placed there, or when you see Chevrolet cars being driven, you better believe that Chevrolet paid to have their cars in that show. That's an industry that's absolutely booming right now, but we believe that there is so much room for innovation and finding new and fun ways to integrate brands and entertainment into one.


Benton Crane:

One of our teams is working on a television show right now where we're making our first television show because we believe that we have to be world-class storytellers and world-class entertainers to have a future in this industry. We're always going to have teams working on ads and we're going to have teams working on shows and over time, we'll probably find ways where those two worlds melt together in really cool ways, and we believe that's the future. More power to the Madison Avenue agencies who are finally catching on that you have to give people something they want to watch. I think that only moves the whole industry in a good direction.


Dusty Weis:

Absolutely. And to that end, that's certainly an attitude that is at the heart at what I do at Podcamp Media as well, where I don't think that the way to people's hearts is annoying them with ads. I would rather produce podcasts that they want to listen to and use that as a vehicle-


Benton Crane:

That's right.


Dusty Weis:

... for marketing. I know that that is a tactic that you guys have recently delved into at Harmon Brothers as well. The Poop to Gold podcast is a pet project of yours. Tell me how's that going. What do you like about it?


Benton Crane:

It's fantastic. The theme is that every successful person has had to go through their own poop moments to come out with gold on the other side. Of course, the name, it's a cheeky call back to our heritage of working on things like Poo-Pourri and Squatty Potty but in the show, we uncover these stories that entrepreneurs go through and the things they have to overcome to become successful.


Dusty Weis:

Well, it's a fun listen. I tuned in a little bit as I was researching this podcast and Poop to Gold, highly recommend. Definitely worth checking out. But whether it's a poop to gold moment or a lead balloon, I feel like I found my kindred spirits on the Great Salt Lake. I've long admired your work. It's been a pleasure to get to pick your brains here today on Lead Balloon. From the Harmon Brothers in Provo, Utah, CEO Benton Crane, thanks for joining us on Lead Balloon.


Benton Crane:

My pleasure. Thanks for having me on.


Dusty Weis:

I've also got to thank Jim Schlueter, the retired VP of communications for Boeing, for multiple trips to the well on advice over the course of my career, as well as for sharing his insight for this particular episode of the podcast.


Jim Schlueter:

With the Squatty Potty, I mean, how in the world would you be able to promote that in a world that didn't have viral videos? You got to have people truly not only understanding the content, but understanding the delivery vehicles in the world we're in now. And maybe even what happened and what they did in 2015 has got to be updated, least adjusting, to the world of 2020, going into 2021 because, well, even without COVID, in our world, five years is 25 years. It's 30-


Dusty Weis:

It's an entire generation. It's a life cycle.


Jim Schlueter:

That's why I'm glad I'm where I am and you're where you are, and I can go watch what you guys are doing.


Dusty Weis:

As I understand it, Jim is thoroughly enjoying his retirement and the extra time with family. He's got a really worthy project underway with his adult son Alex. You should check it out. His son is diagnosed autistic and he has tremendous talent as an artist. At alextheartist.com, they showcase his work and strive to promote awareness and understanding of the autism disorder. That's alextheartist.com.


Dusty Weis:

Thank you for joining us on another episode of Lead Balloon which is produced by Podcamp Media, where we provide podcast production solutions for businesses. Check out our website podcampmedia.com or on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. We bring you new tales from the world of PR and marketing disasters each month, so please make sure that you are subscribed to Lead Balloon in your favorite podcast app. Until next time folks, thanks for listening. I'm Dusty Weis.

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