True Ventures Funds Orabrush, the Justin Bieber of Mouth Care

Now here’s a funding deal you don’t get to write about everyday. True Ventures has invested $2.5 million in a tongue scraper. That’s not high-tech jargon for, say, a scummy site that steals private data off of your social networks and sells it to marketers. True Ventures newest portfolio company is a small consumer package good company out of Provo, Utah that sold a million tongue brushes last year for a few dollars each. And the hope is this little company can teach Silicon Valley a thing or two about how to use social media.

The company is called Orabrush and you may have seen its YouTube videos, which Advertising Age rated one of the ten best social media campaigns of 2010.

Except Orabrush’s use of YouTube may be more impressive than say Pepsi or Old Spice, because it was promoting a product that no one knew about and no one wanted to sell. The brush was invented decades ago by a guy named Bob Wagstaff. Now in his 70s, he’d tried everything to make the product successful– even an infomercial. So a few years ago, Wagstaff took it to a local university to see what they could do with it. The students did loads of research and came back and told him that 92% weren’t interested so he shouldn’t waste time marketing it online. Except one student name Jeffrey Harmon pointed out that 8% was still a lot of people.

Harmon offered to work on commission marketing the tongue brush online, and got a friend to do a ranty video about bad breath. That video cost a few hundred dollars and quickly got more than 16 million views and sold ten thousand Orabrushes in six weeks. It also scored Orabrush coverage on Nightline, The Wall Street Journal, Fox Business and a host of other highbrow media outlets.

Here’s the surprising thing: The video isn’t really that funny. Saying it “went viral” isn’t quite right. People weren’t forwarding this around saying “YOU HAVE TO WATCH THIS! LOLOLOL!” People seemed to resonate with the product itself and a desire not to have bad breath. Many viral videos do little more than rack up page views. This one not only sold ten thousands Orabrushes, it spawned hundreds of videos of people using it and showing the camera the gunk that came off their tongues. Another four million people watched those video responses. And a whopping 20% of people who watched Orabrush’s video went to the site, and 5% bought a brush– metrics that have stayed steady over time.

About this time Jeff Davis — a former senior executive at Procter & Gamble who’d retired to Utah and was looking for something to do– was introduced to the company. Its success at using social media to create a category flew in the face of everything he’d learned over 23 years of marketing products the traditional way. He joined the company as CEO in 2010. On one hand, it’s a like a return to the early days of the consumer package good industry where Soap Operas were high-content ads for soap. On the other hand, he’s in a new world where like George Costanza, his job is now to do the opposite of most everything he learned at P&G.

Since then, the company has managed to translate that video success to retail deals. In the UK, 40,000 Orabrush fans complained enough that Boots called the company to ask how they could carry them. Forty retailers in five countries carry the Orabrush and Wal-Mart is selling them in 14 stories in Utah. The Wal-Mart campaign is interesting. The Orabrush is one of the first products that has an “As Seen on YouTube” label, and there’s a monitor at the end of the aisle showing the videos. I’m not sure Chad Hurley and Steve Chen ever thought their video site would be blaring in Wal-Mart as an in-store marketing tool. But somehow, that too is working. In stores that carry the Orabrush it outsells any other toothbrush– never mind stores turned this product down for years saying tongue scrapers never sell.

Like Justin Bieber, Orabrush is one of those things that seems to be finally proving the promise of YouTube to discover wildly successful things via grass roots that the establishment wasn’t smart enough to “get.” Sure Orabrush doesn’t have millions of followers on Twitter or a movie about its rise through YouTube, but it also doesn’t have that hair. For a device that gets rid of bacteria, it’s about as Bieber-like as you can get.

This is an unlikely social media think tank: 70-year old Dr. Bob, middle-aged Davis and 20-something Harmon and his rogue video crew. But somehow, it keeps working. They’ve made more than 30 videos– most starring a “dirty tongue” who spends his time offending everyone in a weekly show– and their channel is the second most trafficked on YouTube with 33 million views. They followed up with a “Bad Breath Detector” iPhone app, that I refused to blow on when I met with them. It has been downloaded 250,000 times. Despite its small size, Google has flown them out to Mountain View several times to learn from what the company has done well. Under pressure to find a way to turn all those eyeballs into a big revenue stream, there’s something about Orabrush that might hold the answer for Google.

This is why Davis joined the company as CEO, and this is why True invested along with existing investor 2x Consumer Product Growth Partners in Chicago. It’s a lot of pressure on something that seems to have just worked so far. The question is: Has Orabrush been lucky with a product people happened to connect with or have they unlocked some secret of using primary YouTube content as highly-actionable commercials? Could they do this with, say, dental floss?

Harmon says the keys are the four Cs of authentic content, collaboration with the YouTube audience, consistency and a clear call to action. Also, he doesn’t show the videos to Davis before they run. A rude tongue insulting users, women, minorities and beating up kids on a football field? Yeah, better to ask forgiveness than permission. See the latest one about Valentine’s Day below.

But part of the key might be not to confuse lightening in a bottle with a formula for success. What’s striking isn’t that YouTube would have the reach to pull this off. After all, we’ve all seen stats about how much time people spend online versus watching TV, how powerless ads are in a TiVo world, and how you have to entertain people if you want to advertise to them these days. But 99% of the time, it just doesn’t work. American Express and Microsoft tried the entertainment route with expensive ads starring Jerry Seinfeld, and they were a bust. Nearly every Superbowl ad invites you to watch more online. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never once done that. And while the Old Spice campaign was an exception too– it was also hilarious and overtly interactive. The Orabrush campaign seemed to strike a chord because people wanted the product.

On one hand, I hope there is something they’ve figured out because consumer packaged goods is one of the only industries the Internet hasn’t managed to disrupt. But on the other hand, I fear an onslaught of ranty ads trying to ape what Orabrush seems to have innately stumbled into.