The Making of the Legendary Squatty Potty Facebook Campaign
It started with a shrewd and sophisticated marketing strategy that culminated in late 2015 with a video that broke the internet. What will they do for an encore?
By Robb Mandelbaum
From its headquarters in the mountains of southwest Utah, Squatty Potty has managed to ride waves of good fortune. The company’s eponymous stools, which enable an ergonomically proper posture when sitting on a toilet, originally solved an intimate problem for the Edwards family: son Bobby designed the stool after his mom became constipated and found that regular step stools were too tall to use comfortably at the toilet. But within a few years they won some famous endorsements, which in turn led to an appearance on ABC’s Shark Tank in 2014.
But behind these successes was a shrewd and sophisticated—if originally shoestring—marketing strategy, which culminated in late 2015 with a video that broke the internet. As you may remember, This Unicorn Changed the Way I Poop features a unicorn that poops rainbow-colored ice cream cones for small children as a prince explains the mechanics of proper pooping in a fairy-tale English accent. The video was produced by Provo, Utah-based Harmon Brothers, which has experience turning quirky products into viral videos, including for the bathroom deodorizer Poo-Pouri. In 2016, the company sold $38 million worth of Squatty Potties, says Bobby Edwards, mostly because of the video, which Edwards says has been seen more than a half a billion times. The video won a Webby Award in 2016.
“A lot of things we’ve done we’ve gotten lucky, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t cast a wide net,” says Edwards, who stepped down as Squatty Potty CEO in 2018 when the family sold half the company to a private equity firm in a transaction that he says valued Squatty Potty in the “mid-eight figures.” He remains chairman of the company board, and he’s at work independently on a new product — a wand that attaches discretely to a toilet for cleaning one’s nether regions, inside and out. “We’re going to create marketing that tells people how to properly clean themselves. Because it’s a very intimate topic,” says Edwards. “Instead of something you see in a sex shop, I want it to be like something you see in the family planning section at Walgreens.”
We spoke to Edwards about how Squatty Potty figured out its approach to advertising on Facebook in an interview that has been condensed and edited.
You started advertising on Facebook in late 2011?
We did these—they were called sponsored stories. They weren’t really ads. And we would just share pooping stories, or pooping help, or our own articles from our website.
In 2011, I made a hundred stools—and this is when they were made of wood and expensive to make and expensive to ship—and I shipped them to any person I could find who would write about health. One of the influencers was Dr. Oz, and he bit. I don’t know if we were even calling them influencers back them. So they started talking about it, and we started sharing their content through sponsored stories. We would have to pay for it, but my budget was little—my budget was like $800 a month. I wasn’t spending a lot of money. But we were getting a really good return.
It was a process to try and find an ad that Facebook would accept. They had really strict guidelines, because they didn’t want it to look like blatant advertising. You would submit graphics, but most of them got turned down, so you would try and do something relevant, so it looked like a post from your friends.
How long did this strategy continue?
Until about 2013. That’s when Facebook came up with the back room, where you could go in and start building web ads and do like the “shop now” buttons. You could do lookalike audiences [to reach audiences with demographics that match your existing customers]. They started giving you data. They had the graphs and the connections, and you could find people by likes and users and that kind of stuff. They sent us pixels and we put them on our website, so we could do retargeting.
I used Facebook almost exclusively for advertising in the first three years. We do a lot of Instagram now. It’s almost 50-50.
Why the shift?
It just seemed like we got more interaction with Instagram. And Instagram was cheap at the time.
I think of Instagram as a younger demographic—maybe a demographic that doesn’t want to think about pooping.
You know what’s funny? I honestly thought I would cater to a 60-year-old woman, just like Mom, just like her friends who started liking the poop stool. Our audience before Unicorn was 40- to 50-year-olds, split evenly male-female. But the Unicorn gave us what I call the facelift. It made us much younger! Our number one demographic was a 25-35 year-old female. It’s skewing older now.
Why did you want to do a video?
Because I knew our product was perfect for it. We found that humor sold our product better than anything else. We initially had started as like a “Warning: your toilet’s killing you!” And it was doing OK, but the second we started sharing content that was funny, it performed much better. And I could see how people responded when they heard about the concept—people would buy it. When Howard Stern started talking about it, we sold a million dollars. So I had to get something that would go viral.
I had had my eye on the Harmon Brothers for years before we were able to work with them. Before any concepts were even created they gave me a price that was $200,000 to create the video and then another $50,000 to seed it, and I didn’t have the money. We bootstrapped the whole thing—we paid for it as we had the money. So everything needed a return, and I think that really helped me. I was really smart with my spending. I had to be. And so that $250,000 for a video was a lot of money, and we didn’t want to go into debt to do it. I just said, when we have the money, let’s do it. And we got the money from Shark Tank. The first night of Shark Tank, we sold a million dollars of Squatty Potties in 24 hours.
How did you come up with the unicorn?
It started out as an ice cream machine and this Frank Underwood character [from the TV show House of Cards], who spoke to the camera and was serving ice cream to the kids, and then it became kind of creepy. And we thought, how do we make it less creepy? And we were looking online and found people talking about unicorn cookies, unicorn poop cupcakes, and all this unicorn poop stuff.
Unicorn poop was an actual thing before this?
It was a thing, but not a big thing. People were doing these unicorn poop cupcakes, and they were essentially unicorn rainbow-colored cupcakes. And we were like, that would be good, that’s funny. So that Frank Underwood character became a unicorn. But then the unicorn can’t talk, so we created the Prince and the magic land to kind of go in with the unicorn.
The other concept was some English garden with topiary that talked and with kinked garden hoses. And the topiary would die because the garden hose was kinked. So you’ve got to unkink the hose to live. That was the concept that was safest—my parents were like, that’s what we’ve got to go with.
The prince reminds me of Wesley of the Princess Bride.
Yeah, that’s who we fashioned him after. We wanted him to be a douche, but not an unlikable douche. You have to navigate humor really carefully when it’s a pooping product. So we just kind of found that sweet spot, and that sweet spot was with a little bit of humor, a little bit of education, and then a sell.
What were your expectations and your goals for the ad?
Initially, we just wanted to break even. If you can track a one-to-one ratio, then you’re going to get sales in other ways that you’re not tracking. We were well aware that the chances that it was going to go viral were slim. We initially just put it on YouTube, because our analytics were hidden more on Facebook—we couldn’t get all the information. After about two weeks, it was going good, but it wasn’t great. So then we just uploaded it to Facebook, and it took off.
Why did it do so much better on Facebook?
Facebook made it more difficult at that time to share a video on YouTube, because they were kind of at odds with each other. Facebook had just started their platform for uploading videos directly to their site. They were interested in promoting their own platform at that time, and they gave us preferential treatment. We got lucky. We launched it in November; we kind of just ran through July without doing anything, and it just flew. Then we started pumping money into it.
How is your advertising different now that Squatty Potty is a more recognized name?
We don’t have to be so educational. Most people are now aware of the concept. Before, we had to get really literal. People didn’t understand what a toilet stool was. We had to show how people used it. That was the first thing. But now, it’s just kind of more lifestyle.
How has your marketing on Facebook changed since the unicorn?
A lot. The investors have a different strategy—they want a big bottom line. So they’re spending less. They’re spending about a million dollars a year. We were spending about $10 million a year in 2015 and 2016. And it’s not as effective as it was. We haven’t come out with something that’s been as successful. We’ve tried. The subsequent videos didn’t perform as well. The unicorn still performs better than any other content.
And Facebook has changed a lot. Facebook has become more and more expensive. It’s kind of just priced itself out, really. Which is scary, because I have this new product, and I’m like, what am I going to do?
What are you going to do?
I’m going to reach out to more influencers. I’m finding the community that we’re targeting, and it’s going to be a bigger P.R. push.