While the same exact tactics probably won't work for another
brand, the success of Orabrush is an indicator of how much social
media can change the game in a seemingly staid industry dominated
by giants, according to Andrew Whitman, managing partner of 2X
Growth Partners, a Chicago-based private-equity firm that invests
in startup packaged-goods companies, including Orabrush. "The game
has totally changed," he said, adding that low-cost social-media
strategies "have leveled the playing field dramatically." In the
same way music acts now launch themselves without mediation by
major record labels, he said startup packaged-goods brands can
bypass the usual channels and overcome some -- but not all -- of
the big marketing and distribution advantages of established
In the case of Orabrush, the brand won national distribution at
Walmart with little conventional marketing or its executives ever
meeting a buyer face to face. Founded in 2009 in Salt Lake City,
Orabrush last year was contacted by a Walmart store manager in Utah
who wanted to give the product a try in his store. Under a policy
revived under Walmart U.S. CEO Bill Simon, the manager had the
authority to do so. He in turn convinced about 20 others in Utah
after a store tour to try Orabrush, which used the data from those
sales to sway executives at Walmart headquarters.
But it was still hard to get an audience with the buyer. So
Orabrush Chief Marketing Officer Jeffrey Harmon earlier this year
bought $28 worth of Facebook ads targeted at Walmart employees in
Northwest Arkansas reading: "Walmart employees have bad breath.
Walmart needs to carry Orabrush. It will sell better than anything
in your store." The Facebook campaign proved a lot more effective
than $20,000 in print ads in retail trade magazines, which only
generated calls from other trade magazine sales reps, Mr. Harmon
Within 48 hours of launching the Facebook ad, Mr. Harmon got an
email from the buyer, who said her VP also had seen it and believed
it was being directed at Walmart employees nationwide. The buyer,
after also seeing a DVD and sales kit on the Orabrush story, placed
an order for 735,000 tongue cleaners shipped last month.
A Walmart spokeswoman confirmed the distribution in 3,500
stores, but said she couldn't immediately confirm details of the
negotiations or how the deal came about.
In part, the strategy harks to a bygone era in packaged-goods
marketing -- the 1950s -- when marketers would force distribution
by first turning on advertising and getting consumers to pressure
retailers. Inquiries from consumers who saw the exploits of
Orabrush's "Morgan the Tongue" on YouTube, for example, led U.K.
retailer Boots to place an order, Mr. Harmon said. National
distribution with CVS begins next month, he said, and Orabrush
already has distribution in the U.K., Japan and Canada, thanks
largely to its YouTube following.
"We have a reverse marketing model," he said. "Normally you get
distribution and your supply chain in order, all your packaging and
everything perfected, and then launch an ad campaign and start
branding it. We started branding, even changing our logo as we went
along and getting everything right messaging-wise, and then two
years later we're in national retail launching to enough demand
that the sales are blowing a lot of retailers away."
That has led to such oddities as nearly 40 million YouTube
views, 300,000 Facebook fans for a brand that has sold only about 2
million units, mainly online. Orabrush also has generated about 30
million media impressions through coverage in such outlets as The
Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and ABC's "Nightline."
Mr. Harmon acknowledged that the tongue-cleaner business has
been small and mostly unsuccessful for retailers up to now, leading
to some retailer skepticism. But he said YouTube has worked to get
Orabrush distribution, and he'll stick with it to move product off
the shelf, too. All the YouTube (and other) advertising has been
done in-house, mainly with student filmmakers from Mr. Harmon's
alma mater, Brigham Young University.
Walmart's local-vendor and "store of the community" policies,
while not as wide-open as in the days of Sam Walton, still can be a
powerful tool for a startup brand, said one sales rep familiar with
the retailer. To the extent social media can inspire people to
contact Walmart store managers or buyers to carry an item, it also
can help build a case for distribution in a store or
While in the past Walmart had printed forms customers could fill
out requesting an item be carried, today emails directed to the
retailer get routed to buyers. That can help influence decisions at
the national level. But individual store managers can often be
swayed to take on or bring back local items, he said, which in turn
can lead to larger regional buys.
Anand Rajaraman, senior VP global e-commerce for Walmart, said
at the Advertising Age Digital West conference Sept. 20 that social
media will be a key determinant of what local stores carry in the
"We're analyzing social information from the neighborhood area
of each store to figure out how the interests of that community
should dictate what we carry in that store," he said. "We might
find the Walmart store in Mountain View, Calif., should have a
bigger bike section because lots of people bike in that area, while
the store in Bentonville, Ark., should have a bigger fishing
Sales data can tell Walmart about the past and products it
already carries, he said, but "they don't give us information about
new products, and they aren't a demand predictor."
Walmart is clearly emphasizing product innovation, said another
sales rep, but last year's effort to reverse assortment cutbacks is
largely finished in many areas, such as grocery. Any kind of
grassroots effort to build social-media support for a new product,
he said, will only work in categories where it isn't already well
stoked, which is hard. And marketers need to be prepared, like
Orabrush, to produce large quantities quickly, he said, because the
retailer is working with far less lead time than it once did.