Nothing Sells Better than the (Edgy, but Funny) Truth

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Daniel Harmon is Chief Creative Officer of Harmon Brothers, an ad agency most famous for the Squatty Potty Pooping Unicorn. The agency mixes two areas of concentration: traditional direct response advertising (asking for an immediate sale) and branding (where the goal is to evoke a positive customer brand response and promote brand loyalty.) 

Clients come to Harmon Brothers when their product has a more complex or difficult story . . . or even one that touches on societal taboos, but Harmon has to be sold on a company’s product before they will take on that company as a client. Daniel believes that comedy is a good for simplifying complex ideas, and “making the boring interesting and the controversial safe.” In this interview, Daniel also discusses the techniques and importance of ad testing. The quality of creative is important, but Daniel believes distribution is key.

Before the Harmon brothers became Harmon Brothers, they worked at Orabrush, which was founded by Daniel’s brothers when they took an old man’s floundering idea for a tongue cleaner (for bad breath), created a promotional video, and aired it on YouTube. Orabrush was the first product on YouTube’s ad platform that produced a positive ROI. 

A hundred or so videos later, Poo Pourri, seeing the Orabrush campaign success, contacted the brothers. They left Orabrush and went to work on the Poo-Pourri campaign, strategizing around their kitchen table, thinking that they would become part of the company. When Poo-Pouri started talking campaign contract, the Harmon brothers had to be something with a name . . . so the Harmon brothers became Harmon Brothers – we can change it later (but they didn’t). When the Poo-Pourri campaign exploded, people started talking about the Creative agency Harmon Brothers. Surprise! “I guess we’re an agency.”

They puttered . . . until Squatty Potty came along in 2015. Harmon Brothers created a “Rainbow Pooping Unicorn” video featuring a plush baby unicorn that pooped rainbow-colored soft-serve ice cream. The video went viral, with over 50 million Facebook/YouTube views that year. Squatty Potty sales shot up to over $15 million. A plush Squatty Potty Dookie the Pooping Unicorn? Just what every young child wants for Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanza? Maybe not . . .

Daniel spoke at Hubspot’s Inbound 2019 on the topic: “Create Ads that Sell.” He emphasized the importance of comedy and “brand” characters in advertising to get people to emotionally connect with a brand and putting really good sales principles into direct response campaigns.

The Harmon Brothers collaborated with veteran author Chris Jones to lay out the company’s key creative/ culture/ process/ partnership principles. The resulting book, From Poop to Gold: The Marketing Magic of the Harmon Brothers, is available on https://harmonbrothersbook.com/from-poop-to-gold25696414. 

Daniel can be reached on his company’s website at: Harmonbrothers.com/. The company also has a podcast which can be accessed from that site. On “From Poop to Gold” podcasts, entrepreneurs/ creatives/ marketers tell stories about how they’ve turned bad situations into something positive – inspiring for everyone, whether in the industry or not.

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I am joined by Daniel Harmon. Daniel is the Chief Creative Officer of Harmon Brothers, based out of Provo, Utah. Welcome to the podcast, Daniel.

DANIEL: Thank you for having me on, Rob.

ROB: Fantastic to have you. Why don’t you start off by telling us what we need to know about Harmon Brothers? What do y’all do? What are you great at?

DANIEL: Harmon Brothers, we’re an ad agency. We’re most famous for the Squatty Potty Pooping Unicorn. [laughs]

ROB: [laughs] You have to laugh. You have to.

DANIEL: But we’ve also done other ads, like Purple and Chatbooks and FiberFix and Camp Chef and Lume, among others. Our calling card is mixing the two worlds of traditional direct response advertising that’s asking for a sale immediately, and then the branding world of advertising, where you have Nike and Red Bull and Ford and Apple, where it’s more about making people feel something associated with the brand.

We mix those two worlds into a single where we are very focused on driving top line revenue for our clients, but as well, building a world, building a brand, and having casual viewers feel something about that so when they come across the item in the store or whatever, they’re more likely to buy.

ROB: That’s a little bit counterintuitive, to think that you could do the branding exercise as well as the direct response, because direct response sometimes can have a little bit of a cheesy vibe.

DANIEL: Yeah.

ROB: Is there something about the era that we’re in, about the digital format for video, do you think, that has made this sort of ad more possible to be effective?

DANIEL: Yeah, there’s a couple of things at play. One is format length. A lot of it was really restricted back in the day to, for TV, the 30 second, the 1 minute, and you see some of the 15 second things, and even 6 seconds now. That happened with traditional TV advertising. So the format length was one part of it, not being able to tell as much of a story.

I think the other part of it, like you mentioned, is that a lot of direct response was associated with cheesiness. So much of that I think had to do with when they were talking about products, they used a lot of the filming techniques and things that they use for very – for lack of a better term – they were dated, or they just felt too expected.

We just realized in sharing your story, you don’t have to go down that road. You can still feel very authentic or you can feel very polished, and even cinematic, if you will. We rely heavily on comedy. You can do it that way but still communicate a message very clearly in order to find the right people that encounter that problem and give them the right solution with your product or your service.

ROB: So now you’re adding another complication to the process too.

DANIEL: Oh boy. [laughs]

ROB: Because you’re also – comedy is a high bar. You’re already trying to combine this direct response objective with maybe a more digital format of an ad, and now you’re also chasing comedy. And you are the Chief Creative Officer.

DANIEL: So, I come up with all the jokes. No, no, that’s a total lie. [laughs]

ROB: He’s just the head writer.

DANIEL: Yeah. [laughs]

ROB: What does the creative process look like for Harmon Brothers? How do you get from a client coming to you – obviously they want some combination of brand awareness and selling stuff. That’s what most of us want.

DANIEL: Yes. The creative process for us all starts with the sale. We have to be able to believe in the product itself. We have way more clients approach us that want to do a campaign than we can possibly service, so our starting point is always, is it something that we’re passionate about? Is it something that we believe in?

I always say around the office, nothing sells better than the truth. Ultimately, if we have passion for it and believe in it, then that will come across in the way we portray the ad or the way that we create the ad. So that’s the fundamental right there. We say, what sells us on it? What makes us believe in it?

And then if we can put ourselves in the customer’s shoes in that way, it’s really easy to think about how to speak to them in a way that’s relatable.

ROB: Before you were doing some of these ads, did you have Squatty Potties rolling around in the bathroom in the office?

DANIEL: [laughs] Squatty Potty was an interesting one because it was my brother – so we had done the Poo-Pourri campaign prior to Squatty Potty, and the CEO of Squatty Potty, Bobby, had noticed that and he approached my brother about doing a campaign. My brother is one of the co-founders, Jeffrey Harmon. He had a Squatty Potty, and he was using it, and he was very much championing it and believing in it. I was just kind of along for the ride a little bit.

ROB: You’re like, “That’s my brother. Okay.” [laughs]

DANIEL: Well, his gut’s usually pretty right on stuff, and if he’s telling me, “This is a good thing,” I’m like, “Okay.” But yes, the ultimate answer is yes, we have Squatty Potties around the office that have gotten stolen from time to time. [laughs] We have a shared space.

ROB: It’s not a recruiting benefit? You don’t get a Squatty Potty when you join?

DANIEL: No. [laughs] We’ve had memos come across Slack where it’s like, “Who stole the Squatty Potties out of the office?” We share the office space with a lot of other people, so we never know. Hopefully it’s not our own employees. But yeah, we very much go into using the product. That was the case with the Purple Mattress, that was the case with FiberFix, with Chatbooks, with any of these things. We make sure we experience it for ourselves, again, so we can think like a customer.

ROB: Right. With even Poo-Pourri, there’s a little bit of edginess. It’s a difficult topic. We once worked on a campaign around toilet paper etiquette. Probably didn’t carry it off nearly as well as you have. But had you done things edging into the edgy prior to Poo-Pourri, or was that a bit of a defining piece for you?

DANIEL: A little bit. Prior to founding Harmon Brothers, our backstory goes back to a company called Orabrush, which was a tongue cleaner for bad breath. What happened with that campaign is with the Orabrush campaign, there was a video on YouTube called, “How to tell if you have bad breath.” I think that’s the title of it. It shows how you can scrape your tongue with a spoon and then smell it in order to see if you have bad breath.

So we were dealing with kind of a taboo thing already – with disgusting smells of bad breath – and that campaign became famous because it was the first one on YouTube that generated a positive ROI with YouTube’s ad platform – meaning we knew predictably that we could spend a dollar on advertising and get more than a dollar back with that ad. It was very much that style. We weren’t even an agency at that point; that was just us brothers, working at a company.

The Orabrush case study became something that they used in order to present to companies like Pepsi and Lay’s and all these different bigger companies and get them involved in YouTube.

But yeah, approaching more difficult subjects was a little bit I guess second nature to us. I think some of riding that line of edgy versus – where can you push the boundary and make people laugh and acknowledge the fact that we all have a little bit of these conversations with your closer buddies. You might not have them all the time over the dinner table or that kind of thing, but you have moments where you’ll talk about that more openly.

I think, honestly, some of that comes back to growing up in rural Idaho in a very religious family, so there were certain things that were taboo, but at the same time growing up on things like a dairy farm, where we were around animal crap all the time. [laughs] Growing up around that type of stuff. Actually, we didn’t grow up on a dairy farm, but we worked at dairy farms from time to time and had cows and chickens and all that kind of stuff.

So, I think there was a little bit of a familiarity with the everyday life-ness of it, and also a little bit of built-in internal boundaries around growing up in a big, religiously-conservative family.

ROB: Right. That even seems like it could be a little bit of a recruiting advantage without being a complete black eye. It sounds like people would be like, “I want to work with them because they don’t take themselves so seriously.”

DANIEL: Yeah, very much so.

ROB: “I’m over growing up that way.” But it’s also not like they’re going to work for an adult film company or something. They can tell their parents about it.

DANIEL: Yeah, that is very much a recruiting advantage for us. That’s one of the big draws. One of the big reasons clients come to us is because we’re able to tell more complex or more difficult stories. It doesn’t always have to be taboo subjects. It can just be things that are really complicated that we break down in a more simplified way.

That’s where I think comedy comes in as a tool. It’s very good at making the boring interesting and the controversial safe. It’s just a good platform altogether for being able to tell a complex story and simplifying it. The comedy doesn’t necessarily make it simple itself, but it’s a good canvas to paint on when you’re wanting to take something complicated and make it more simple.

Yeah, people like to come to us and they say, “Oh, you’re doing something really creative, but you’re not going to do it in a way that’s going to make me feel gross and that I can’t” – like you said – “talk to my parents about it or maybe show it to my kids” or something like that. Depending on the age demographic in the campaign and stuff. [laughs] But yeah, that has been a recruiting piece for us.

ROB: A Baptist preacher I knew, he would say, “When you make people laugh, you open up their hearts to hear the truth.” Humor as a gateway to the truth – you don’t need to be edgy. We all need to tell the truth about what we’re doing as best we can, but that’s a hard process. Sounds like you’re helping in the middle of it.

You referenced life before Harmon Brothers. Tell me, how and when did you decide to start Harmon Brothers? How did this come about?

DANIEL: My brothers were co-founders of Orabrush, the tongue cleaner for bad breath. They later recruited me into the company as an art director, and we made – I think it was over 100 videos while we were there. We were doing weekly for a while, trying to just learn it by doing it.

Ultimately, Poo-Pourri reached out to us when they saw the success of the Orabrush campaign, and we resigned from Orabrush in order to do the Poo-Pourri campaign. We weren’t thinking we were starting an ad agency at the time. It was very much we thought we were going to be part of the company. Business-wise, that didn’t turn out to make sense.

But that was a huge hit – basically what happened is we did the Poo-Pourri campaign, started pushing ad dollars behind it, and then Huffington Post picked up one of the videos that we were testing and wrote an article. Then it started to snowball from there, and that became a public-facing video. Then we got picked up in Adweek and advertising agent stuff, and they would cite “Creative agency Harmon Brothers.” We just launched this from my brother’s kitchen table with a bunch of laptops.

ROB: They did it for you, basically.

DANIEL: I mean, at the end of the day, when the Poo-Pourri deal was going through, they needed a place to put the campaign money. So, this is a late-night decision where my brothers were like, “What are we going to call this thing?” It’s like, “Well, let’s just call it Harmon Brothers and we’ll change the name later if we need to” kind of thing. It just needed an LLC to throw the campaign money into it to make it happen. Didn’t think another thing of it.

And then when it starts to blow up and everyone’s citing “Creative agency Harmon Brothers,” we’re looking around the kitchen table at each other like, “Are we an agency? I guess we’re an agency. We created a campaign, whatever.” But even then, we weren’t leaning into it. We did that one campaign. Again, long-term we thought it was to join Poo-Pourri. That didn’t turn out to make sense. So we had a period where we weren’t firing on all cylinders or anything like that. We were just getting by with little side projects and stuff before Squatty Potty eventually came along, and that was what really made us double down and take it really seriously.

ROB: You mentioned testing the Poo-Pourri ad. For people who don’t know, what does it look like to test an ad in the modern era? How do you do that? And how much? Because you could make 10,000 versions of an ad or five, or two, or one. 

DANIEL: I’d say with testing, you want to – the best place to start is always your creative. “What do I like? What sounds good to me?” Because that’s the starting point as well for a product or service itself as far as the way you’re going to share that message.

But then when it comes to how much you test – like you said, you can get really carried away with it, with maybe diminishing results. So, I would say really good things to test are your titles or headlines. We can use that term interchangeably. Your thumbnails. Even on Facebook, where things auto-play, thumbnails actually can move the needle quite a bit. I’d say that’s your best starting point.

And then you can even test different edits of the video itself in order to see what gets more people watching through, what gets more people to click through. That all gets pretty complicated, but very much if you’re A/B testing, you can find your way to the messages that are resonating the best.

ROB: Interesting. You’re alluding to – a lot of people think of the creative and the quality of the creative and what left an impression in their mind, but it sounds like you’re also in some ways involved heavily in the digital execution. How far down the path of – people think you made an ad, but there’s so much that comes after that. How far down the process of distribution of content, of measurement, how deep is Harmon Brothers involved?

DANIEL: Very deeply. Our success has largely, in addition to being how well we execute creatively, has been in the fact that we’re very involved in the ad buying. If they have in-house capabilities of being able to do that, then we provide consulting and guidance for that. Or if they don’t, then we’ll actually do ad buying and testing and all that stuff ourselves, and eventually maybe hopefully pass it off to them. There are some cases where we’re buying on an ongoing basis with them as well.

So yeah, the distribution – the whole “content is king, distribution is queen, but the queen wears the pants” kind of thing. That could be very true, where ultimately if you don’t have a good distribution strategy in place, then your campaign’s not going to be set up to succeed. So yeah, we’re very familiar and very involved in all of that.

But like I said, we like to get our clients on their own feet with that as much as possible, where if they can be buying their ads and stuff in-house, then it creates more of an opportunity for less friction in the relationship.

ROB: Right. It’s more experiential when they understand they can’t say what they would do, because they’re doing it. “I would do this, just nudge it a little bit to the right and give me some better numbers.” No, they’ve got skin in the game too. 

DANIEL: Yeah.

ROB: You are here delivering a talk called “Create Ads that Sell.” I think we can understand a little bit better from this conversation how that fits in, but what are some of the key points from that talk that we should be thinking about?

DANIEL: Some of them we’ve already touched on. It’s a mixture of the branding, getting people to feel something emotionally about the brand. Maybe not just the product itself, but being able to connect emotionally with things. Comedy is our primary tool for that. And then also the direct response: putting in really good sales principles. That’s a lot of what I’m going to be talking about today.

Also, I think there’s something to be said for having characters inside of your advertising and being part of your brand. What I mean by that, if you’re building a world and you have a character that people can connect with – let’s say for example, Allstate. Allstate uses Mayhem as a character. The insurance companies do this a lot. They’ve got the Gecko.

ROB: It’s amazing, the insurance companies.

DANIEL: Well, they get tons of money, right? [laughs] But they understand that ability to use character. But I think of things like, for example, banks in advertising. There’s very few iconic characters – almost none that I can think of, as much as they’re trying to establish all this trust and things. But when you think of other people being able to copy your advertising or that type of thing, if you have a character, they can never actually copy that.

ROB: Except for the one telco ad where the character for one company defected to another telco when the first contract was up.

DANIEL: Yes, there’s that one. But for over a decade, that was not the case. Yeah, the Verizon and Sprint thing is a good example of that.

But if you think in terms of Nike and Under Armour and Reebok and Adidas, a lot of their advertising actually starts, to me, to feel very similar. They’re all kind of playing in that same emotional game of “be your best self.” I know that Nike owns “Just Do It.” They don’t necessarily always lean into that message anymore as much as they just figure we understand it.

ROB: What is the best “Just Do It” ad you can think of?

DANIEL: That’s a character. It’s the same reason why Nike invests in someone like LeBron. LeBron is a character that you can’t go and copy. Under Armour invests in Steph Curry. That’s their own character. That distinguishes them. Their messages might actually feel very similar, but only one person gets that character.

ROB: It’s interesting to really think about. There are not a lot of memorable ads that don’t include character. Geico, for goodness’s sake, has an entire entourage of characters in their portfolio.

DANIEL: Yeah. A lot of it is because you’re able to tell an ongoing story with it rather than a one-off. Some of that stuff is the stuff that sticks. The fact that you see the Gecko in this setting here, and doing this and that, and you see Mayhem doing all these different things – that really sinks in. Like the Old Spice guy. Over time, you really become familiar with that character, and that really sears itself into your memory.

ROB: It’s fascinating, too, from a story perspective, because I don’t see – at least a high level; maybe you see more deeply because you’re in the middle of it all – a commonality in the type of character. You think of insurance companies, and if you were thinking very simply, you would be like, “We need to be responsible and trustworthy.” And they don’t always – it’s not that the character you’re looking at is like Mr. Rogers.

How do you get from character to the truth of the brand? Because it seems like they’re a little bit disconnected as long as the narrative plays right.

DANIEL: Insurance is an interesting thing, because insurance is mostly a have-to, meaning, it’s a purchase that’s almost forced on you because in order to drive around your automobile or whatever, you’ve got to have insurance. Or the same thing with – it’s almost like it’s this obligated purchase rather than this one, “oh, I just want to go ahead and do that.” Most people are like, “Yeah, you have to get insurance.”

So, the insurance companies lean very heavily into humor because I think they understand the fact that “everyone has to buy this stuff; let’s at least make them laugh while we’re going along for the ride.”

Yeah, I know exactly what you’re saying. It feels like it may be a little bit disconnected because it’s like, are you really getting the trust? But at the same time, if I make you laugh, you are going to trust me more – as long as I’m not cutting you down in some way or cutting somebody else. But if I’m a person that can make other people laugh, that doesn’t make me less trustworthy unless I’m just being a total goofball.

ROB: Right, and that’s evolved a little bit. Comedy’s having its own little moment with all of the Netflix and Amazon specials and all that sort of thing. Some people in the comedy world complain about the jokes you can and can’t tell, and some people are embracing the moment, if you will, that you can still confront very challenging things; you just have to be more creative in how you get there, and more human in how you laugh about it.

DANIEL: Yeah, I think so. I think one of the things that we’ve learned is that you have to be really careful – in fact, you want to avoid making fun of the victims. If you think in terms of someone that’s really struggling in a way where they feel like they’re a victim of something, you want to be careful of making fun of that. People won’t find that very funny. But if we can laugh at ourselves or make fun of someone that’s more of a villain, that’s funnier.

ROB: That’s a good point. It’s a very good point. Daniel, what are some things you have learned along this road of building Harmon Brothers that you might do differently if you were starting over tomorrow?

DANIEL: Some things I’ve learned that I might do differently if I were starting tomorrow? Gosh, that’s a great question. We’ve had a lot of really serendipitous things fall into place. I’m not one to look back and have regrets. I’m mostly just plowing forward to the next thing.

But I think – not even differently. What I would do more of is I would have even more of a culture of experimentation. We’ve really tried to instill that in our culture at Harmon Brothers, that we’re going to experiment, we’re going to try new things. But there has come a certain level of this Harmon Brothers standard of quality, like everything has to be amazing.

Some of that at times I think has gotten in our own way, where we could be a little bit more experimental. We don’t have to put as much pressure on ourselves as sometimes we do to try to do it perfectly or whatever it is. There’s no such thing as perfect. But that’s one thing I’d say. I would want to double down even more on a culture of experimentation, because you always have to be innovating.

And we have. I’d like to see even more of that, where we’re really trying to innovate on ourselves. Some of the best innovation is stuff that hurts you for a little bit, but then you see a real uptick after that. You know the book by Clayton Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma. Just embracing that even more I think would be amazing.

ROB: That’s an exciting thought. Are there any secrets to working with your brothers?

DANIEL: Yeah, don’t work with them. [laughs] You kind of laugh, but there is a little bit of truth in that.

ROB: Did you see this coming? Did you think you were going to be in business with them all along? Was it inevitable?

DANIEL: Not entirely. My brothers and I are co-founders of Harmon Brothers. They don’t work day to day in Harmon Brothers anymore. I’m Chief Creative Officer; my partner Benton is CEO. My brothers don’t work day to day at Harmon Brothers anymore, and haven’t for a long time. They’re heading up another company called VidAngel. We’ve actually serviced them as a client for a time, and it’s now even made sense for us not to do that. They’ve taken that in-house, and we’re doing it separate. We totally still have great relationships and all that kind of stuff.

But I think some of the biggest things that I’ve learned over time in working with siblings is relationships matter most at the end of the day. No matter what kind of arguments and stuff you have, you still have to be able to learn to forgive each other and to move on and focus on your strengths.

The other one is you’ve got to allow each other ownership of your own things. There’s been times when we’ve wanted to meddle in each other’s stuff. You have to realize, he’s going to approach that differently because he has a different personality than I do, and I’m going to approach this differently because I have a different personality than he does. But as long as we’re owning it and doing our own thing, then let’s just allow ourselves our own space. That’s been really good.

Other than that, back when we were working together in the more day to day, we found that, quite predictably, we would have a real fundamental disagreement on something. We’re actually usually pretty much in lockstep together of the vision of things, where things should go. We’re fairly in agreement. That’s one of the advantages of working with family sometimes. You see fairly eye to eye.

ROB: You have a shared culture.

DANIEL: Yeah, we have a very shared culture. But every 3 months or so, we figured there was a really big disagreement that was going to happen. And it could get pretty heated. Not personally heated, usually, but pretty heated because we stood on opposite sides of perspective. But at the end of the day, that would sort itself out, and an hour or two later we’d be fine and good to go. [laughs]

ROB: It sounds like good advice for any partner or co-founder, really. Except that when you’re dealing with working with family, I think you just bring maybe a little bit more emotional baggage – it’s easy to get emotional faster because it’s tied to many more experiences than just the 8 or 10 hours a day or whatever you spend in person.

DANIEL: Yeah.

ROB: Very, very interesting. Daniel, when people want to find you and find Harmon Brothers, where should they go?

DANIEL: Harmonbrothers.com is our website there. They can go check us out. We also have a podcast. It’s called “From Poop to Gold.”

ROB: Right on.

DANIEL: Yeah, it was in the iTunes Top 50 in the Business section or whatever it was. When we launched, we had lots of really good guests on there. They can check that as well.

ROB: You’re doing two episodes here at the conference, I think, tomorrow?

DANIEL: Yeah, we’ve already recorded some yesterday, and we’ve got some tomorrow as well.

ROB: What’s a typical guest or the type of content on your podcast?

DANIEL: It’s very much the stories for entrepreneurs, creatives, marketers, and things like that, of where they’ve taken a crappy situation and turned it into something positive. That’s the theme of the podcast, “from poop to gold.” But yeah, it’s focused on marketing, creativity, and business.

ROB: That sounds very aligned and makes sense. I think people should go check that out as well. Thank you for joining us, Daniel.

DANIEL: Thank you for having me on, Rob.

ROB: Have a fantastic day and rest of the conference.

DANIEL: Yeah, thank you.

ROB: Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email info@convergehq.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.

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