Episode 321 — Manufacturing Hit Commercials — Harmon Brothers
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 the CCO of Harmon Brothers and CEO Benton Crane talk about their company’s creative process, pipeline, how to meet and relate to clients, the impact of COVID-19 on businesses; and the content they teach at Harmon University.
Harmon Brothers’ Website: www.HarmonBrothers.com
Harmon Brothers University: www.HarmonBrothersUniversity.com
The Poop to Gold Podcast: https://harmonbrothers.com/podcast
Allan McKay’s Podcast with the Harmon Brothers: www.allanmckay.com/181/
From Poop to Gold: The Marketing Magic of Harmon Brothers: www.HarmonBrothersBook.com
[04:41] The Team at Harmon Brothers
[06:55] Meeting Clients on Their Journey
[10:24] Finding the Truth in Each Product
[13:17] The Creative Pipeline at Harmon Brothers
[20:05] Creating the FiberFix Spot
[29:55] How to Pitch to Clients
[36:00] The Importance of Successful Branding
[43:55] The Impact of COVID-19 on Businesses
[52:06] Harmon Brothers University
[53:58] Harmon Brothers References
EPISODE 321 — MANUFACTURING HIT COMMERCIALS — HARMON BROTHERS
Hello, everyone! This is Allan McKay.
Welcome to Episode 321! I’m sitting down with Daniel Harmon, the CCO of Harmon Brothers, and the company’s CEO Benton Crane. We talk about their creative process, their pipeline, how they meet clients, the impact of COVID-19 and how certain companies managed to turn that around in their favor. We also talk about Harmon University which is their learning platform.
I’m super excited to sit down with Daniel and Benton. I had them both on the Podcast before (www.allanmckay.com/181/). I’m a huge fan of their work. They’ve become known for memorable commercials, on top of the books they’ve published, as well as Harmon University.
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Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
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INTERVIEW WITH THE HARMON BROTHERS
[04:41] Allan: Again, guys, thanks so much for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourselves?
Benton: Sure! I’m Benton Crane. I’m the CEO of Harmon Brothers.
Daniel: I’m Daniel Harmon, and I’m the CCO of Harmon Brothers (and I try to coordinate shirts with Benton).
[04:59] Allan: I love it! I’ll link to the previous Episode we’ve done (www.allanmckay.com/181). But for now, can you talk about some of the more iconic projects that you’ve done?
Daniel: One of the projects we got known for recently is Lume, a natural deodorant company that doesn’t use aluminum in its products. We launched a bit of an internet advertising push with a Broadway musical style ad. We’ve released a dozen of ads and variations. They’ve gone from 1.7 million dollar run rate to…
Benton: In 2018, it was like 1.5 million and it jumped to 20-something million in 2019.
Daniel: I think they’re at over 50 million now.
Benton: I’ve heard projections that they might clear a 100 million this year. It’s a really phenomenal growth and [they’re] some great entrepreneurs.
Daniel: And a really great product that solves a problem for people. You can also use this product on your other body parts. So that’s a distinctive feature. Kudos to them!
[06:55] Allan: That’s really awesome! Initially, people come to you to get more recognition. Do you now propose different approaches for different platforms and how people absorb the information?
Benton: We like to think of it in terms of anyone who pretty much starts a business and has these aspirations: “In the beginning, it’s an obscure brand but eventually — we’re a household name that people trust.” Going from obscurity to a household brand is a journey. If you look at Nike and Apple, it’s a journey that takes decades. We, as a company, haven’t even been around for a decade. When you look at our portfolio of clients, none of them have hit that Apple / Nike level yet. But we’d like to think that several of them are on the path to becoming household brands. We try to meet people where they’re at on their journey. Maybe they’re still in obscurity, maybe they already have $5 million in annual sales. We try to amplify their efforts to keep them moving on their journey.
Daniel: Some of the brands that are on their way are: Squatty Potty, Poo-Pourri, Purple Mattress (which is huge now, they’re at $2 billion, or something). Even in the case of Lume, they’re now the number one selling deo brand on the internet.
[10:24] Allan: I love that! For a lot of the growth that companies you work with have, what are the secrets to becoming memorable? And what are some of the metrics you need to lean into?
Daniel: I think one of the biggest things is finding the element of truth for that brand that you can tell a story around. For Lume, it’s a deodorant that can be used for other parts of your body. And they’ve really leaned into it because it’s solving this problem that so many people deal with and not talk about. We have smells on other parts of our body.
The same has been the case with Purple. We were able to distinguish them from other beds with that test: How will [the mattress] support you where you need it, yet give way where it has the softness of a soft bed? That’s one of the biggest things with these products: Finding the truth of what they’re offering: how do they differentiate in the market place and leaning into that. Another client of ours is Kodiak Cakes. They make a pancake mix that’s high in protein and whole grain. It’s distinct from Biscuit in that way. They have had tremendous success with their campaign. So much so, they just got acquired by a private equity firm, just a few weeks ago. So much has to do with speaking to the truth of your product.
[13:17] Allan: To go down the process, say with Lume (or any other product), what’s the typical process from onboarding a client to the actual campaign?
Daniel: The first part of our onboarding process is finding a Creative Director here at Harmon Brothers who has a belief in the product or the service. We sell our best when we believe in what we’re selling — and nothing sells better than the truth. Then, it’s about finding the right writing team with writers who represent the demography our client is going after. If it’s moms in their mid-30s, we try to find at least that one person for our writers room. Or we find writers who are specialized in food, for example, or technology. They approach the problem in different ways. They try to tell the story in different ways.
Benton: Even though each writer has their own perspective, all of them have a special skill set that we’ve found pretty unique to Harmon Brothers. You’ll find a lot of writers who are good at sales and persuasion, or you’ll find writers who are good at entertainment. But it’s rare to find writers who are world class in both of those. That is the specific superpower we’ve developed in our writers at Harmon Brothers. You can be funny and persuasive at the same time. All of our writers are extensively trained.
Daniel: And within the writers’ room, you’re going to find representation of someone who has improv or sketch, or a standup comedy experience. Doesn’t have to be everyone! We have a writing retreat, we bring different writers together. Then we have different concepts. We all know what the problem we’re trying to solve is, but everyone approaches it from different angles. Then we pitch those to the client. Which one is the most core concept do we need to single out? Then we take the best parts from scripts by different writers. Until we come away from that retreat (which is usually a day or two) and then we have a script to run with. The client is with us in that process. It’s not just a pitch to them. They’re involved in the writing process to help them understand the customer. They help us mold that script over a few days.
[18:29] Allan: Very different from Mad Men where they get drunk for a couple of days.
Daniel: There is less alcohol and philandering going on!
Benton: People are surprised to find out that the Squatty Potty Unicorn was dreamt up with a bunch of sober people. With no substances involved!
[19:04] Allan: I remember Kurt Belcher talked about pitching his product to Bed Bath and Beyond and the whole time they were referring to Sally. He finally asked to get Sally into the room. That’s when they pointed to an empty chair, the customer avatar they’re writing everything for. I think it’s such an overlooked thing to find people who align with your product!
Benton: It’s even easier when you don’t have to imagine an empty chair, but fill the chair with the perfect customer avatar. And you can’t always do it perfectly.
[20:05] Allan: I love the FiberFix Commercial you did. I was thinking about it as a case study in terms of challenges. It is pretty extreme. Can you talk about that?
Benton: I have a big smile on my face because that campaign may be my personal favorite. It evolved around us throwing cars off the cliff. It was part of my childhood dream.
Daniel: And that’s on top of being a really great success story where they were bought up.
Benton: It also highlights really well our creative process and how reiterative it is. It also highlights a pretty unique differentiator at Harmon Brothers: It’s not that often that you get a creative group willing to put in the time and reps to get from a rough idea to something that’s polished. FiberFix highlights that. That creative process took over 2 months. The concept started where our accountant at the time liked to go Jeeping in the desert. He’d seen several Jeeps roll over. The roll cage saves the Jeep. So we thought of replacing that with a PVC roll cage that’s wrapped with FiberTape. It can illustrate how strong that stuff is. What we found out is that while it’s really strong, it’s not super rigid. So the roll cage didn’t do what we needed it to do. That’s when Daniel had the idea of still using pipes, but instead of welding them together —
Daniel: We’d just make the joints out of Fiber Tape —
Benton: As if we were taping them together. We started testing that in a parking lot. We saw it was strong enough and it would work for visualization. But then we realized these Jeep roll overs were very anticlimactic. It sort of flops on its side.
Daniel: It feels like a big deal when you’re watching it, but on video [it’s not].
Benton: That triggered a memory from when I was a teenager and went to a demolition derby on a group date.
[24:06] Allan: Since I moved to the U.S., it’s the one thing I want to do! One day, I’m going!
Benton: It’s like a redneck ride of passage! This particular derby had a halftime event. During the intermission, they set up a ramp. There were these tiny cars that came in from the outside of the stadium. And as they came into the arena, they’d go up this ramp. It was a crowd favorite. I can’t remember how many times the winner rolled. It might have been 2.5 – 3 times. The crowd was wild! As we were thinking about it, we thought we needed something more like that. I was driving along the freeway in Utah and there is this spot that’s famous for hang gliders, where they take off or land. I just looked at that hill and realized that’s where the cars needed to roll from. Then, we had to source a hill. Then came a challenge of how do we begin it. Again, we were doing our testing. I rigged up a car with 11 airbags under the car on one side. We triggered them all at once and the car went rolling. It was so much fun and it looked so spectacular. I brought it back to the team and Daniel watched my footage and decided it was too distracting. You’re caught up in a spectacle! We eventually got to what you see in the video.
Daniel: We ended up getting an FX team to help us out with that process. They’ve worked with J.J. Abrams [before]. It was probably where we should’ve started. But that’s what you see in the video. There were no welts, just rolling down with the FiberFix holding it in place. What you see the very first time it actually happened. We didn’t actually know what was going to happen. We had a proof of concept but we never rolled it down the mountain. It was a lot of fun!
[29:10] Allan: It’s not exactly an easy scene to reset.
Daniel: No! We had two takes set up.
Benton: We had two duct tape cars and two Fiber cars.
Daniel: That’s true!
[29:30] Allan: Apparently J.J. has listened to a few of these Episodes. I don’t know if he’s a frequent listener.
Daniel: The shoutout goes to Ryan and Mike Roundy who did the VFX.
[29:55] Allan: I’m also curious about how you pitch a project like that to a client. How do you figure out how to do it?
Daniel: On the writers’ retreat, we’d always told them about the idea of rolling a car with a roll cage. It was a pretty extreme showcase of the product. Another idea that sold them was from a writer Matt on our team, who pitched a manly man talking in the commercial. That’s what sold them as well: the personality and the character of this manly man who doesn’t take any crap from anyone. They felt it embodied what their product was about. That really resonated with them.
Benton: It was less about pitching and more about their being side by side, as the concept developed. By the time everyone coalesced around the concept, they’d been there from the start.
[32:10] Allan: While we’re on the topic, knowing you’ve tried different things, is that typically one of your core beliefs to keep up with reiterations?
Daniel: I think very much so! This part of our creative process, we have to have fresh eyes at every critical stage of the development process of the concept or the video where people will hear it for the first time. If people don’t find something funny, it’s a brutal process. As a creative, you put in all this work only to have people tell you it’s not working.
Benton: You can look at the Squatty Potty Unicorn coming from a giant robotic horse in the original concept. We were talking about putting it on the food truck in NYC and having rainbow ice cream shooting out of its butt. It started as this horrific idea. We can take you through the same journey for the Purple Mattress. It started with something terrible. We plan on that process. It’s hard and time consuming, but it’s how you get to something great. There are shops who try to do what we do but they try to do it for less. So they don’t allow themselves the time and budget to go through the same process. Which is why the end product rarely lives up to what we get.
[35:06] Allan: If you’re going to do it — then do it right!
Daniel: That’s how we try to approach it. And a lot of the time, the client is buying into that from the beginning. Part of the price they’re paying is for our iteration. You know we’ll be dedicated to try to solve this problem alongside you.
Benton: Our clients don’t buy into any given concept. They buy into our track record and our process. The concepts come in after the clients have already bought in.
[36:00] Allan: One more question: Has there ever been a project that wasn’t hitting the mark? How did you turn it around?
Daniel: We definitely have run into that, but it’s more of an exception to the rule, luckily. We feel blessed in that way! Early on, there have been times when we fell in love with the concepts of products or services but they hadn’t nailed it down for the customer that hasn’t made sense. It wasn’t everything what the customer needed it to be. A marketing campaign isn’t a silver bullet for a product that isn’t there yet. Or in some cases, they haven’t figured out their messaging and their sales funnel. They don’t know how to turn their website visitor into a customer. Our campaigns are just rocket fuel in a fire that’s already burning. But if there is no fire to begin with, it’s just fuel that doesn’t burn. Something along the lines when traffic gets to their site but it can’t convert, for example. In those cases, bringing in more traffic isn’t going to help. That’s part of why we have a robust consulting team that helps clients get through that process. So those are the two times we’ve seen that happen.
Benton: We had a company that found massive success through door-to-door and phone sales. They wanted to make the transition to becoming an e-com company. They hired us to make their e-com campaign. We liked the product and the service. We agreed to do the campaign, but mid-campaign, they pulled the plug on becoming an e-commerce company. They asked us to add a phone number to call. The campaign launched for internet savvy customers and then you give them this 1-800 number. They just don’t do that! It’s not their behavior. It was a breakdown. That falls into the example of our signing on based on the promise of what the company was going to be, instead of what it is today. It was still an amazing campaign but it never drove the results it should’ve had.
Daniel: And there are other examples of where the companies weren’t ready, but either through their own efforts or our guidance, they made tremendous leaps and bounds in conversion rates. They’ve had a lot of success doing that. But one needs to come before the other. A branding campaign isn’t going to fix a problem in your e-com funnel.
[36:38] Allan: That’s right!
Benton: Direct marketers like to criticize branding type campaigns. “You can’t track it” or “It’s expensive”. But AirBNB is on the cusp of becoming a household brand. They’ve been on that journey. Just a couple of months ago, they shifted 20% of their budget away from their performance marketing to brand marketing and they saw an immediate lift in revenue. So there comes a time and a place, where a brand has a higher ROI than the direct response. And that’s not in the early days of the company. In the beginning, we talked about the journey. It’s a gradual transition as you add these branding elements like humor and character, a world building that makes it memorable. Then you lean into that heavier until you end up in a place like AirBNB.
Daniel: It all depends on the life cycle of a brand.
[43:55] Allan: Yeah! One thing I’ve always said to my demographic of creators is, “You can be the greatest artist on the planet; but if no one knows who you are — how are you going to get work?” The more awareness people have of you, the more front of mind you are. Obviously, we’ve done through COVID-19 and you’ve been helping businesses that have been hit hard by offering free ad campaigns. Do you want to quickly talk about that?
Daniel: We did a giveaway for a $100K campaign. We had hundreds of companies apply to be the winner of it. Really awesome products that came through! We were able to give away prizes to finalists and semi-finalists. What’s so cool is that the final winner was this company called GoTreads. Their company was reliant on their conferences and tradeshows to make money. It’s these Treads that you put under wheels to get you unstuck. It should be in your trunk along with jumper cables! COVID hit and their revenue dried up. They hadn’t been taking any e-commerce play. We gave them consulting along the way and they ended up winning a campaign. Our Creative Director James made a powerful campaign for them: He made it with a fire truck getting stuck in the mud! Their sales 10X-ed. They’re blowing it out the water, without any of the events. The other businesses that were semi-finalists saw their sales double or triple just by applying those things we know how to do. We coached and guided them along the path.
Benton: Our other client was Next Vacay. The travel industry suffered so much! My heart still aches. Next Vacay had 90% of their sign-ups were wiped out. They went from being a healthy growing business to a declining business overnight. He was worried about having to lay off his employees. These are the horror stories so many entrepreneurs went through. He signed up for one of our courses called Easy Ads That Sell which helps them with video assets. It’s only a $200 course. He went through it and did all the work. His growth 3- or 4X-ed. Now he’s back to a growing business. That was during the pandemic! While everyone in the industry was pulling back, he went for it. He invested 6 figures in a Harmon Brothers campaign. He made that bet in the middle of the pandemic! I take my hat off to him for his courage! As the pandemic is winding down, his business is like a rocketship.
Daniel: And he’s double downed on another campaign!
Benton: He’s going for a hero campaign on his journey to becoming a household product. It’s an awesome service too! It’s a $25 a year subscription and it finds legit crazy deals from your home airport. These are legit deals you’d want to fly!
[52:06] Allan: You opened Harmon Brothers University. What was the idea behind that and what kind of courses have you been offering?
Daniel: Harmon Brothers University opens our playbook to train our employees. It teaches:
- How to get a video campaign off the ground;
- The messaging for a startup level company;
- Our writing structure;
- How to present a problem people can relate to;
- And how your product provides a solution to that.
It’s all available there. We’ve had a lot of people get a lot of success applying those principles. We know we’re sharing our secrets with the rest of the world, so it keeps us on our toes. At the same time, it’s hard to do. It’s been a nice thing! More will come back to us than what we give away.
[53:58] Allan: It also gives them a level of appreciation for how much work goes into it! I appreciate your time. Where can everyone go to find out about Harmon Brothers and Harmon Brothers University?
Benton: People who just want to follow along, just follow our Podcast From Poop to Gold: https://harmonbrothers.com/podcast.
[54:08] Allan: Thanks, guys! I appreciate your time! This has been awesome!
Daniel: Thanks, Allan!
Benton: It’s been a pleasure!
Okay, what did you think? I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Daniel and Benton for coming on the Podcast.
Please take a moment to share this with others.
Next week, I’m doing a solo Episode on why you should stop competing on prices; how to eliminate your competition and find your dream clients. Until next week —
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