Confessions of a Viral Video Superstar
There aren't many entrepreneurs who can definitively say, "That was the best $50 I ever spent." Tom Dickson can.
Dickson is the founder and CEO of Blendtec, a $40-million Orem, Utah-based company that specializes in food-processing appliances. Dickson is also the star of the ubiquitous "Will It Blend?" videos, which are already acknowledged as one of the pioneering campaigns in the nascent field of viral marketing. The campaign has brought Blendtec's all-powerful blender more than 100 million views.
Prior to the campaign, Blendtec had a miniscule marketing budget, preferring to spend money on engineering and design. The majority of sales were commercial, and Blendtec relied on demonstrations at trade shows and word-of-mouth referrals. Then George Wright, Blendtec's director of marketing and sales, spent $50 on the first five "Will It Blend?" videos. He bought a white lab coat, the URL, and a selection of items to be blended, including a garden rake, a rotisserie chicken and a Big Mac Extra Value meal.
With his white lab coat and safety goggles, Dickson has tapped into the silliness of old David Letterman stunts, and the low-fi direct response marketing of off-hour Ginsu Knives ads. The highly addictive clips feature Professor Dickson finding out if his blender will shred things like a Rubik's Cube, glow sticks, an iPhone, or Easy Cheese.
"Will It Blend?" debuted in October 2006 and within five days, the clips had gone viral with six million views. Dickson is now a bonafide Web star to rival Tay Zonday, "Ask A Ninja" and the LOLcats. Not bad for a 61-year-old engineer with 11 kids, 28 grandkids, 186 employees and legions of devoted fans desperate to see what he's going to chop up next. Inc.com recently spoke with Dickson and Wright about the secrets to their unlikely viral success.
Tom, tell us about your background.
Dickson: I'm a Mormon from San Francisco. I graduated from BYU in 1971 and moved back home thinking I should probably sign up for the National Guard. My degree was in manufacturing engineering and the only work experience I had was as a missionary in the Gulf States. The only job I could find was at Alza, a company founded by Alejandro Zaffaroni, one of the inventors of the birth control pill. We made the first patch and the only IUD that's been around for 35 years.
As a Mormon, did you have any qualms about working in the birth control industry?
Dickson: I did. I was married with two children, but the top scientists in the world working at Alza weren't really into kids. The health insurance policy covered two live births and unlimited abortions. Eventually, I was put on the corporate communications committee and got the policy changed to unlimited live births and two abortions. I was instrumental in setting up the factory in Mexico where we would do the testing of the Progestasert IUD. The Progestasert IUD stopped implementation in the uterine wall, so it's basically an abortive. It went against my beliefs and I wanted to focus on health and wellness so I got out of pharmaceuticals, even though it's extremely lucrative.
Where did you go next?
Dickson: I'd always been interested in breadmaking and my hobby lead me to find better ways to store grains. Typically, people were storing wheat in plastic buckets, which often came alive and would get infested with weevil. While at Alza, I started a side business, Harvest House Food & Grains, and created safer packaging. I ordered 48,000 pounds of wheat and realized there were no good cheap grinders. I made a mill with a $10 vacuum motor and realized it produced a finer grain with less starch drainage. We sold 44,000 Magic Mills in two years for people who mill their own grains like wheat, soy, or chickpeas. I eventually left California and started Blendtec in Utah. Williams-Sonoma was an early customer, and we still sell mills today. Experimenting with different ways of food processing got me into mixers and blenders. In 1995, we introduced the first home blender.
Where did "Will It Blend?" originate? I can't imagine this was the result of focus groups.
Wright: I was Blendtec's first marketing director when I came on board in January 2006. I recognized that Blendtec has amazing products, but we were vulnerable because few people knew about us. One day I walked by the lab, and Tom was testing some changes he'd made to the blender by shoving a 2x2 wood board into it. There was sawdust and wood shavings everywhere. Longtime employees were used to Tom's experiments, but I was new, so I was desensitized. I thought, This isn't normal, but it's awesome.
What were your initial hopes for "Will It Blend?"?
Wright: I knew Tom made an awesome blender and we just had to show people how it worked. I never dreamed that a $50 marketing budget would take us to The Tonight Show and to more than 100 million Web hits.
Can you quantify how the campaign has led to sales?
Dickson: Since "Will It Blend?" started, we've had explosive sales growth of 700 percent of our home products. It's been a home run since the day we launched. Talk about viral marketing, now I'm the expert, but it's all George. We're in textbooks and I speak to marketing people all the time, but when George first pitched his idea to me I said, "Who tube?" I'm glad I listened to him because our marketing department makes money.
You mean the "Will It Blend?" campaign has offered a great return on investment?
Dickson: No, the campaign has opened up new avenues that have actually brought in somewhere close to six-figures. There are the revenue-sharing checks we cash from sites like YouTube, the speaking engagements, and the co-branded promotional clips like the one we did for Ed-FM, a radio station in Albuquerque owned by Ken Osmond, better known to you and I as Eddie Haskell. Companies also pay me roughly $5,000 an hour to be in their commercials. I recently blended oversized lollipops in an ad for Dibs ice cream snacks. We also get free media that you could never buy, such as our blender being featured in the new Weezer video, Pork and Beans. Naturally, we did a Weezer blend of our own.
How much planning goes into one of your videos?
Wright: Prior to filming, I'll brainstorm with the producers and storyboard the shots, perspectives, etc. If it's an ad for someone else, it's usually scripted; otherwise we try to capture Tom being himself. He doesn't always know what's going to be blended until he puts on the lab coat. The key is, "Will It Blend?" and we're usually as surprised as anyone.
Dickson: Capturing the element of surprise is essential. Like when my wife brought in hockey pucks. That was the worst-smelling blend by far.
Have any of the "Will It Blend" segments gone awry?
Dickson: The biggest debacle was probably the Bic lighters. We started with two, but it wasn't doing much, so I threw six in the blender. The lid came off and flames shot all over the room. We had to grab a fire extinguisher to put it out. I ducked under the table, but my eyebrows were still singed. Unfortunately, we didn't capture it on video all that well.
Have you been able to capitalize on the videos in any other marketing venues?
Dickson: For years, we've contracted employees to do live demonstrations at stores like Costco, but now kids who know us from the web drag their parents over to watch reps cook a bowl of soup or make a smoothie. We're finding that one of every three of those demos leads to a sale. We never guessed that kids introducing their parents to the blender would be a viable demographic, but demonstrations are vital because our blender is around $400 and more than $1,000 for a commercial model.
Did you capture lightning in a bottle with this campaign? Or do you think this kind of success could be replicated?
Wright: Anyone can create their own content. It used to be that you had to interrupt people to get your message across with a television or a print ad. People want to have fun, so that has been a big part of "Will It Blend?" If you are a manufacturer, though, it's important to be honest about what your product can do. Don't try and deceive your audience. People don't like it when someone tries to put something over on them.
The campaign has to run its course at some point. Have you thought about what's next?
Wright: Only a small segment of the population has seen a "Will It Blend?" video, and new people keep discovering them all the time. There is always something going on in pop culture that can be stuffed into a blender, so I think it has legs.
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