business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

It reads like a comedy skit: A start-up oral hygiene product utilizes a tongue-in-cheek YouTube campaign and $28 in Facebook ads saying “Walmart employees have bad breath” to gain an audience with the nation’s largest retailer.

Funny thing is, in the case of Orabrush, it worked.

Some 735,000 units of the $5 tongue cleaner shipped to 3,5000 Walmart stores this month. Credit both a savvy social media strategy and Walmart’s local buying initiative for the success.

Orabrush, featuring ultra-soft pointed bristles designed to clean bad breath-causing bacteria from the tongue, was created in 2001 by 76-year-old inventor “Dr. Bob” Wagstaff in Salt Lake City. Frustrated by failed attempts to sell the product through infomercials and conventional media, he turned to a market research class at Brigham Young University for help in 2009.

One student suggested a funny bad breath video for YouTube, enlisted his creative pals, and created Morgan the giant, snarky bad breath tongue (think a John Belushi character). Wagstaff had never seen YouTube but greenlighted the $500 project. The rest, as they say, is viral history. (The BYU student, Jeffrey Harmon, is now 27 and Orabrush’s chief marketing officer).

Today, Orabrush has its own YouTube channel – Cure Bad Breath -- with more than 39 million views of its wacky, SNL-skit like shorts and 160,000 subscribers. It ranks third in YouTube branded channel popularity, behind No. 1 Old Spice (with its mellifluous hunk of a spokesman) and No. 2 Apple.

The YouTube contingent joined Facebook (now at 300,000 fans) clamoring for the product, and Orabrush began generating sales and attention. A Walmart store manager in Utah saw the video, tried the Orabrush at home and wanted to give the product a go in his store. Under a revived company policy, he had the leeway to do so, and convinced about 20 other stores in Utah to join him. It was a hit.

Orabrush still had trouble getting the attention of the chief buyer at Walmart HQ in Bentonville, Ark., so it used the positive Utah sales figures, created a comedic video featuring Morgan the tongue and took out $28 in Facebook ads targeted to Northwest Arkansas reading: “Walmart employees have bad breath. Walmart needs to carry Orabrush. It will sell better than anything in your store.”

Within 48 hours Harmon had an email from the buyer, the ads were pulled, the brass reviewed Orabrush’s impressive sales figures and Walmart placed an order for 3,500 stores. Harmon told AdAge that Orabrush never planned to begin national distribution at that level, but “Walmart, because of their local program, are now more mobile than a lot of the smaller chains. They can learn faster and adapt.”

There are many business lessons here, starting with Dr. Bob’s decision to seek help and giving the YouTube plan a shot, the young company’s “reverse marketing model” that allowed it adapt as it built a loyal consumer base, and Walmart’s local buying initiative that gave Orabrush a shot at a national market. To those who still question the efficacy of YouTube and other social networking sites in building and maintaining a loyal customer base, just consider what one $500 video and $28 in Facebook ads accomplished.

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