Dr. Robert Wagstaff had a PR problem on his hands. As president of the Mormon mission to the Philippines, Wagstaff had received complaints about the bad breath of the missionaries. In the complaints, he saw an opportunity — after all, bad breath is a global problem.  

After researching various dental products, the former biochemist and nutritionist invented the Orabrush. The tongue scraper with soft bristles was designed to gently remove odor-causing bacteria that collect on the tongue. But getting his Orabrush into the hands of consumers proved even tougher than the original problem.

Retailers turned Wagstaff away. They already had aisles filled with dental floss, mouthwash, mints and hoards of toothbrushes. To create buzz, Wagstaff invested $50,000 in an infomercial, but it was a bust. As a last resort, he appealed to marketing students at Brigham Young University for advice. Students researched the online market and told Wagstaff that 92 percent of consumers were unlikely to buy his product. But one student, Jeffrey Harmon, pointed out that the remaining 8 percent still represented millions of potential customers. Inspired by his comment, Wagstaff approached Harmon after class about working together. Harmon suggested a funny YouTube video.

Orabrush made its debut with a funny Youtube video featuring Austin Craig, who now serves as company spokesmanAlthough Wagstaff wasn’t familiar with YouTube, he gave Harmon $500 to film the video. On Sept. 10, 2009, Orabrush introduced the world to a fast-talking dude in a lab coat and protective eyewear (at right) who explained the causes of bad breath and offered the Orabrush as a solution. The video slowly gained an audience that swelled to more than 18 million views, and many were ready to buy the Orabrush.

Harmon recruited his brother, Neal, to help craft a social media marketing strategy. With a background in logistics, Neal Harmon also designed an e-commerce platform to accommodate the growing number of fans who had begun to post their own funny videos.

The Harmons’ direct-to-consumer business model has gained traction in recent years, thanks to companies like online eyeglass manufacturer Warby Parker. It also drew the attention of retired Procter & Gamble executive Jeff Davis.

Having spent 23 years in corporate America, Davis was ready for a reboot. He decided to teach business fundamentals to the next generation of leaders. It was then that he met Wagstaff and the Harmon brothers, who had managed to turn everything Davis knew about business on its ear. He joined the company as an angel investor and now serves as CEO.

“Their story was so fascinating from a marketing standpoint — how they could create a product and compete with Colgate and Procter & Gamble in that space,” Davis said. “It’s everything I learned at Procter & Gamble — in reverse.”

By harnessing the power of social media, Orabrush has cultivated about 200,000 subscribers to its YouTube channel and 341,000 Facebook fans. All those eyeballs helped open doors at retailers such as CVS pharmacy, Target and Walmart. Today, Orabrushes wage a war against halitosis in 30,000 retail outlets and 15 countries, including the Philippines. Jeffrey Harmon now serves as the company’s chief marketing officer and Neal Harmon is chief operating officer.

Orabrush tongue cleaners fight bad breath by scraping bacteria from the tongue. They also sell enzyme-based tongue foam

Orabrush tongue cleaners fight bad breath by scraping bacteria from the tongue. They also sell enzyme-based tongue foam. (Photo: Orabrush)

Like most traditional consumer brands, Orabrush has added new products to its lineup. Last year the company launched enzyme-based tongue foam designed to promote oral health. Orabrush kits now feature a brush and a bottle of tongue foam for $9.99.

The next challenge

In response to a flood of customer feedback, Wagstaff decided to tackle yet another challenge — dog breath. He created the Orapup, a larger version of the Orabrush, and paired it with a flavored gel. Davis initially balked at the idea until he tried the product on his 6-year-old puggle.

“I was fascinated and asked, ‘How do you get a dog to clean its tongue?’ Well you don’t, the dog cleans its tongue by licking the Orapup,” he says. “[My dog] will lick as long as I will let her lick the Orapup.”

To test its consumer appeal, Davis set up an Indiegogo campaign with the goal of raising $40,000 through sales on Amazon.com. Instead, the company raised $62,572 — and generated plenty of buzz among pet lovers. Before the Orapup tongue brush and “Lickies” bacon-flavored gel combo debuted on Feb. 25, the company had racked up $750,000 in sales. According to the company website, consumers have purchased 69,000 Orapups. (But what do dogs think? This dog gave it 3 out of four paws.)

Now there is an even bigger goal on the horizon: a bigger slice of the $53 billion pet industry.

Packaged Facts reports that pet owners spent $11.1 billion on pet supplies in 2012, a 2 percent increase over the previous year. The market research firm expects sales to rise by 4 percent in 2013, fueled by health-related and preventive care products.

Building on its own momentum, Orapup added two flavored gel Lickies in June: the cherry chicken cobbler gel contains glucosamine to promote joint health, while cinnamon chicken pot pie has coconut and safflower oils to improve a dog’s skin and coat. Orapup starter kits ($20) currently include the Orapup, Lickies gel, as well as two Orabrushes and tongue foam for people. (Incidentally, the tongue foam for people does not taste like bacon.)

“We are just moving along, growing the company and doing really innovative, disruptive things in social media marketing,” said Davis. “It’s exciting.”

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When bad breath is good business
Viral videos and social media have catapulted the once-rejected Orabrush into a mainstream product — first for people and now for pets.