Episode 181 — Harmon Brothers — From Poop to Gold
The Harmon Brothers is a marketing firm based in Provo, Utah, that has a history of making viral advertising videos. Founded by brothers Daniel, Neil, Jeffrey and Theron Harmon and CEO Benton Crane, the company creates marketing campaigns that are usually the length of an infomercial — but with a distinct sense of humor. Their campaigns for Squatty Potty and the Purple have more than 100 million views. They have also created campaigns for Poo-Pourri, FiberFix, Camp Chef and several others.
Since then, the company launched the Harmon Brothers University where through online courses, Daniel Harmon and Lead Writer Dave Vance share their insight on how to create successful marketing videos. With writer Chris Jones, they also co-wrote the book From Poop to Gold: The Marketing Magic of Harmon Brothers that “reveals the behind-the-scenes magic including their innovative business model [and] one of the biggest secrets behind their success”.
In this Podcast, Daniel Harmon of the Harmon Brothers and CEO Benton Crane discuss the Company’s history, the secrets to creating viral ads and the three C’s: the principals for their success.
- Harmon Brothers’ Website: www.HarmonBrothers.com
- Harmon Brothers University: www.HarmonBrothersUniversity.com
- From Poop to Gold: The Marketing Magic of Harmon Brothers: www.HarmonBrothersBook.com
- Harmon Brothers Profile in Forbes Magazine: https://www.forbes.com/sites/amyfeldman/2017/05/02/harmonbrothers/#1de2914b585f
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
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INTERVIEW WITH THE HARMON BROTHERS
[09:10] Allan: Do you want to quickly introduce yourselves?
Daniel: Sure! My name is Daniel Harmon. I’m the Chief Creative Officer of Harmon Brothers.
Benton: I’m Benton Crane. I’m CEO of Harmon Brothers.
[09:21] Allan: Awesome! I thought it would be fun to get some insight — in your words — on who are the Harmon Brothers and what you, guys, do. Obviously, besides all the poop jokes, it would be better coming from you on what you focus on.
Benton: Sure! Historically, advertisers had to choose between two worlds. You had your traditional branding world: Your Nike and Coca Cola, or Apple. And then you had your direct response world: your infomercials, those types of ads. And there was very little in between. Generally, if you work in one world, you hate — or at least, criticize — the other. At Harmon Brothers, we see it very differently. We see the benefits in both world that we can take advantage and leave the baggage behind. Our clients’ spots build a brand but also connect with the viewer at a very emotional level and give the viewer something to remember and talk about.
[10:41] Allan: I think what you do is brilliant. Do you want to touch basis on how you got started and how you found that niche for yourselves?
Daniel: My brothers Neil and Jeffrey were Co-Founders of Orabrush which is a product that cleans the tongue to get rid of bad breath. Jeffrey was studying marketing at BYU at the time. This guy Dr. Bob came up with this invention called Orabrush and he was looking for a way to market it. He got [Orabrush] into some local stores and it wasn’t moving off the shelves. He went to the same marketing class that my brother was taking. And the conclusion was: If you try to sell this thing online, it’s only 7% of people that are going to be interested; so don’t even bother. And Jeffrey raised his hand and said, “Wait a minute! Seven percent of 300 million of people is a lot of people!” Dr. Bob loved that and asked Jeffrey to market it.
Jeffrey pulled in Neil and they became Co-Founders, and they made a video. Neil is a tech guy so he programs. He was building a funnel to be able to sell the brush. And Jeffrey threw up a video from YouTube on someone scraping their tongue with a spoon and smelling it to see if it’s gross. He put it on the page, and just by being there, their viewing rate increased by 30%. So he wrote up this script, grabbed his roommates to help him film it, grabbed this guy from work who liked to rant. They made the video for really cheap. At that time, YouTube came up with their ad system that tied into Google. He started buying ads for Orabrush and people started going to the store to buy the product. They started getting national and international distribution.
Then the Poo-Pourri CEO Suzy Batiz reached out and asked them to do a marketing campaign. Jeffrey and Neil ended up hiring me a bit after launching Orabrush. I was working at an ad agency in Chicago. They brought me on as the Art Director for Orabrush. After a few years of that, they decided to resign and do this Poo-Pourri campaign. They just decided to call the company Harmon Brothers and change it later. It was an accidental thing with the name. They had the place and the money. I ended up leaving the Orabrush as well. After Jeffrey’s decision to leave Orabrush, they reached out to Benton who was in Washington DC at the time. He was working for a consulting company. So Benton said, “Let’s go for it!”
Benton: That’s when the actual agency was born, for that Poo-Pourri campaign. Jeffrey, Neil, Daniel and myself, we did the campaign and it blew up in unexpected ways. I forget where, but we were sited as the Harmon Brothers.
Daniel: We were sitting at Jeffrey’s kitchen table, looking at our laptops, while his wife would bring us this delicious Brazilian food. (She’s originally from Brazil.) I remember reading “ad agency Harmon Brothers”. It was like, “Are we an agency? I guess we are.” It was that kind of a thought. From there, the CEO of Squatty Potty Bobby Edwards approached us. Eventually, we ended up doing a campaign for them. That’s when it really exploded.
- That’s when we figured out our model.
- That’s when we jumped in both feet using Facebook and YouTube…
Benton: And that’s when we proved our model was successful. We had done it on Orabrush and Poo-Pourri. It was a model we could drive to predictably successful results. It snowballed into Purple, FiberFix…
Daniel: Chatbooks, Camp Chef and on and on. At the beginning, we were known as the Poop Brothers. And then, people realized we could do it for mattresses, for more than bathroom humor. That’s where the Harmon Brothers started.
[18:18] Allan: That’s so brilliant! Again, I think that people associate a lot of the products that you’ve covered with infomercials. They used to think of infomercials as boring and bland. But you make them funny, relatable, and it makes people want to share them. Was it from the beginning that you scaled to a big company? Or was it a slow build-up?
Daniel: Um, no. Not at all! It wasn’t!
Benton: It was a slow journey. As part of that journey, we co-founded VidAngel which is a video streaming platform that allows viewers to apply filters to whatever they’re watching (like to violent scenes). In the beginning, it was rough sledding. There came a point where Jeffrey and Neil were going to stay on VidAngel and Daniel and I were going to focus on agency work. We thought it was going to be temporary, to keep the lights on. But it took off from there.
Daniel: But Benton was an Uber driver for a while and I was doing contract work on the side, just to get by. Even after the success of Poo-Pourri! I think it was always in Benton’s head that he wanted it to become an agency. I was more hesitant on that. VidAngel never paid anyone’s bills so we had to think of something else.
Benton: We’re all very passionate about working on things we feel strongly about. And with the agency route, we would have to take on projects just to pay bills; just to do things because there is a check on the line. And none of us wanted to go down that route.
Daniel: That was my biggest fear. And by the time we were able to put that fear to rest, we realized we got to a place where we were in the driver’s seat. Once Squatty Potty launched and offers were coming in, we could pick and choose which clients we wanted to work with. That’s when it really felt like we were onto something.
Benton: And we’ve been fortunate to stay in that position. Last year, we had 1,200 inbound leads come in. Of those, we chose 8 or 9 to work with.
[22:20] Allan: That’s great!
Benton: It allows us to vet them carefully and to make sure we’re marketing the products we’re passionate about. If it’s not the type of thing that we’re at home, talking about it with our families, or telling our friends about it at parties…
Daniel: Yeah, if we’re not evangelizing it in our every day life, why would we want to go on further?
[22:52] Allan: How do you typically pick the projects that are right for you? What are the things you’re looking for?
Daniel: We are looking for something we believe in. We do this mixture of direct sales and branding. A lot of what lands itself to that — is a sort of problem / solution type of a product. That’s another thing we look for. We look to see if they’re differentiated in the market place. If it’s something in the red ocean, sort of speak, it’s not something we’ll get excited about. Or if there is an opportunity of sorts for us. What are the other ones?
Benton: We want to make sure that it’s proven to some degree. It’s ready to scale. So many times, startups haven’t figured out what they do or what they offer. They see us as a silver bullet to their success. But they still have to prove that what they offer — is awesome. They’ve got to show that customers love it and that there is a big enough market. Once you’ve proved those things, now you’re ready to throw gasoline on the fire and make this thing huge.
Daniel: We’re not a nail-it company. We’re a scale-it company. Scale it up. [We also look for] compatibility, just working with their team, the personality dynamics and if they have confidence. Also, they have to be cool. No working with jerks.
[25:38] Allan: I’m based in Portland. You’re in Utah. I think it’s one of those myths worth bursting: For you being in Utah, do you find that there are any setback being outside of the main cities?
Daniel: I think there are pros and cons.
Benton: Early on, I kind of had this mindset that if we were to be successful, it would be in spite of our location. About a year ago, I was speaking at an advertising conference in Lake Tahoe. It was full of people from NY, San Francisco and LA. One evening, I was having dinner and I happened to be next to someone running an agency from Alabama. He knew our work and he said, “You know what? You’re really lucky to be in Utah!” He went on to explain: Anyone from NY, LA or San Francisco is going to have a harder time connecting to your average American. Because of that, we have an advantage. I don’t know how much that plays out in practice. But it was the first time my mindset changed.
[28:50] Allan: That’s awesome! In regards to the book From Poop to Gold, can you talk about what it’s about and who it’s for?
Daniel: The book project started 3 years ago. We sat down and talked about the possibility of writing it. It was a history book first. But then it became clear that it would be more valuable if we talked about the things that go on at Harmon Brothers, that contributed to our success.
Benton: I think we just finished Squatty Potty. I remember we were at a point where we looked at each other: “This ride needs to be documented!” It was just otherworldly. That’s where the conversation with Chris Jones started.
Daniel: He would come into our offices and observe. He would go to our writing retreats, go to set, go to the day of campaign launches. He would ask us questions and compile everything (even before we knew what was going on). We collaborated really closely with him to finish up the book and distill it to the key principals that have contributed to our success:
- Creative processes;
- Creative culture;
- Creative partnerships.
So much of it boils down to that for us. It was really interested to go through the writing process. We naively thought we’d be able to create a book without putting it through our own creative process (that we put our campaigns through). And then he was asking for it all along. We needed to get the right heads into it. Once we applied our creative process to it — along with his brilliant writing — we created concrete insights. How do you create a creative partnership, just because there is a check involved? You cannot lose your soul in the process or create a relationship you hate. With the title and cover, a lot of it evolves around Squatty Potty.
Benton: We had an interesting process. The book was near completion and we had no idea if it was any good. Maybe it was a piece of crap? We got it into the hands of a dozen beta readers. We gave them a survey. One of the questions was “How likely are you to share this with a friend?” It came to 9.3. Of course, we have to look to people like you to give us an honest opinion.
[34:34] Allan: Worst read ever! (Laughs.) No! I love it! Over Christmas, I had the in-laws in town. It was a good escape from dealing with them. It was great! It transcends the advertising world. It gives critical knowledge you can apply to any business.
Daniel: We made a little ad for the book. The video ad now has 2 million views. I think there is a real need for it in the market.
[35:39] Allan: How has it been received so far?
Daniel: Really well! We were all surprised. Everyone who has gotten their hands on a copy has had a positive reaction.
Benton: We admittedly shipped late. We were embarrassed by it. We started pre-sales in December, but being rookies, it ended up being delayed. The feedback hasn’t rolled in en mass. But it’s been pretty strong.
Daniel: For anyone listening, the book’s title is From Poop to Gold: The Marketing Magic of Harmon Brothers. You can find it on our website: https://harmonbrothersbook.com/from-poop-to-gold.
[37:16] Allan: I’m sure everyone would love to get their hands on it! One of things you mention in the book is your hiring process and what you look for when hiring.
Benton: To hit that, we have to mentioned the core thing to who we are: We have this mission of “Share better stories!” It can be done in other industries. (And we’re interested in exploring that!) A good example would be education. So we launched an online university: The Harmon Brothers University. There is a great place to go to learn to do videos and marketing. The world of entertainment is another underserved market.
We have these big long term aspirations. Knowing that’s part of our DNA, it gives us a lot of clarity. When we bring in candidates, we have to dig into what makes them tick and what they’re trying to achieve — and how their life lines up with our mission. When you get that alignment, that’s when it works. When Jake Christensen came on, I found out he was coming to Harmon Brothers to learn our tools and techniques. But through the interview process, he realized that his life’s mission would be fulfilled inside of Harmon Brothers. Jake and other people feel like they’re on that path. That’s the type of alignment we look for! That’s when you get the passion from people!
[41:17] Allan: That’s so great! Again, having that unified vision that everyone gets is important. In my industry, if you don’t give a shit about what you’re doing, it clearly shows. Visual effects is such a brutal industry, you will suffer. With Harmon University, what inspired that?
Daniel: We had 1,200 incoming leads last year. There is a huge demand in the market and we can’t supply it all — or don’t want to tend to all that. We want to provide tools and resources for people to do this kind of marketing on their own level. To mix the elements of storytelling, marketing and sales that they can drive as an engine of growth for their company. The University started with our course on writing. We said if we were going to do that — let’s go all out. Anything we feel we can communicate to our students, we’re handing over all that information and we’re trying to develop workbooks and packets, to help them. That’s how we’ve been approaching it.
Benton: We’ve tried to raise the bar for online education. You can look at 99% of education available right now and go, “There is a better way to engage people and keep their attention. Let’s make it interactive. Let’s build in animation and motion graphics.” The other area is this: Most online education brags about what the viewers will get. No one has 120 hours to pay attention to these videos. We try to economize to what’s there to what’s essential. Our courses run a few hours, not hundreds of hours. But when you watch them, you’re engaged.
Daniel: We tried to apply the same mindset of our campaigns. How long does it need to be for the concept — and no longer! How are we going to do it? Humor is our signature with high production value.
[46:28] Allan: I love it! Can you talk about your process: from when the project come in, pre-production, production, to completion, all that kind of stuff?
- Generally, when we partner up with a client, we start with the deep dive of researching their market, their product and how they’re different. And we try to get at the core of what makes that product great. A lot of the time, it boils down to: What sold me on that project? You’re already the customer.
- We put together a team of writers. We set them out on the same path. They go independently for some time and develop their scripts. We try not to have them poison each other’s ideas. That’s the point of having several writers and from different parts of the U.S. They bring together different perspectives.
- Then we take their scripts to a writing retreat and we see what the best concept is, one to build off of. Then it’s about checking your ego at the door. We all write together. One of the advantages, you get the best jokes.
Benton: One of the unique things is we pull the client into that process. The writers and client come together. I hear the scripts side by side with the client, for the first time. That way, we’re on the same journey. When we walk away from the retreats, we have the perfect alignment between what the client wants — and what we want.
Daniel: You get everyone on the same team and make them work collaboratively. And when you solve the problem together, there is a natural bind.
- When we come out of that, we have a ready script.
- We go through the casting process (which can be a pain sometimes). We look for people with a comedic skill and a relatable ability to pitch.
- All the production stuff: Do we have visual effects? What sets are we building? What locations do we need to scout?
- We go into filming and that’s when the real work begins: The editing and rounds and rounds of feedback. If you read Creativity, Inc, you know what that is.
- We get input. We show it to people. The big thing for us is to never get too precious about the work. You can’t hang onto it.
- We do the motion graphics, music, etc.
That’s the process. Just tons of work to put out the best product we can! Then we write the launch. We test different variations. What calls to action get them to the site faster? That’s it, I guess.
I think it’s important to know that we’re known for viral videos. The first thing we tell our clients: You don’t want to go for that! It’s like catching a lightening in a bottle. If we can make a video that helps a client sell their product, you can spend the money on Google or Facebook — and you’ll get more back. Then the shares will come. All that stuff will come!
[55:20] Allan: That’s such great advice! Where can people go to find out more about you?
I want to thank Benton and Daniel for taking the time to chat.
- Next week I’ll be back doing a solo Episode.
- I’m also doing a return Episode with David Allen coming up some. He wrote a book called Getting Things Done. He is the number one expert on productivity. He is doing a big event in Amsterdam. We talk about that and the ways that you and I can get productive.
Make sure you’re part of my VIP Insider List. To sign up, please go to www.allanmckay.com/inside.
Until next week —
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