Despite worrying about isolating older customers with a cheeky ad, the outdoor living merchant increased online sales by more than 200% year over year.

The agency behind the advertising campaign for Squatty Potty really went for kitsch. To create buzz for the bathroom step stool, which positions consumers in a squatting stance to ease bowel movements, the team at digital marketing firm Harmon Brothers opted for a unicorn perched on a toilet while pooping glittery, rainbow-colored ice cream onto a conveyor belt of cones.

The quirky storyline demonstrates the muscle-relaxing benefits of the step stool, and the video went viral with more than 150 million views. Online sales skyrocketed with a more than 600% bump, according to the agency.

That brand of humor may have worked wonders for a low-ticket novelty item, but Craig McLaughlin wondered whether it would be tone deaf for the long-established Camp Chef Inc. brand of outdoor grills. The manufacturer needed a unique angle to release its $899 Woodwind Pellet Grill into a quickly growing space—the pellet smoker category that McLaughlin, the director of e-commerce, anticipates soon will be a billion-dollar industry.

Agency Harmon Brothers was in the running to spearhead the new creative endeavor, but given the marketing investment north of $1 million that Camp Chef would have to make to produce a video, it gave the retailer pause.

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“Harmon is used to working with newer companies that maybe have one product, but we have a legacy to protect,” McLaughlin says. “There was a lot of consternation. We were excited for the possibilities but somewhat apprehensive about the project. You don’t know if you’ll invest in something that will fail or, worse, embarrass the company.”

Company legacy

Utah-based Camp Chef got its start nearly three decades ago in 1990 when founder Ty Measom decided there had to be a better way to cook outside. He developed high-powered propane systems that are stronger than a stove to handle temperature variation, weather elements like wind and cooking portions to feed large groups.

Camp Chef’s product line launched with a portable, low-cost, two-burner stove geared toward campers and outdoor sporting enthusiasts—the retailer’s core customers. But the brand eventually expanded into cast iron cookware, Dutch ovens and, later, fire pits—appealing more to “backyard domain” dwellers like families who hold sacred the summer barbecue, McLaughlin says.

The 30- to 50-year-old crowd is Camp Chef’s bread and butter, given that the retailer’s message centers on cooking as a family event. This age bracket is old enough to have established traditions like annual family wilderness vacations, he adds. But the brand has the aim of getting their equipment in front of backcountry trekking Millennials.

The challenge for Camp Chef then became attracting the latter without alienating the former. The company’s e-commerce and marketing teams started formulating the plan for the campaign 18 months ago and ultimately decided it was worth taking a gamble on Harmon Brothers, even though the grill brand is sold in established chains like Home Depot and is a far cry from an e-commerce startup.

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There was a tricky push and pull for control over the creative direction, McLaughlin says, and both parties did a fair amount of compromising while conceptualizing the ad.

“We didn’t want to be so funny that we depreciate our value as a brand and jeopardize our reputation by coming across as silly or trying too hard,” McLaughlin says. “So, there’s course correction we provided to [Harmon Brothers] throughout the process.”

The Grill God epiphany

On May 1, 2017, the Grill God made his debut. Bedecked in a toga with a laurel wreath atop his wise-looking head and armed with a tool belt crammed with barbecue seasoning and dangling tongs slung jauntily across his hips, the carnivore’s deity appears. As lightning bolts and heavenly rays burst through the grimy grates of a wretched-looking grill, the master of Southern barbecue begins preaching about the divine benefits of a pellet smoker to a misguided suburban dad destined for mediocre cookouts unless he changes his sinful ways of conventional meat preparation.

According to McLaughlin, the video now has 33 million views, and since the campaign launched, monthly online sales have swelled in excess of 200%. December e-commerce sales were 240% higher year over year, and for the first time ever, surpassed sales from the retailer’s peak season in June. Moreover, 90% of the customers gained with the Grill God campaign were new to Camp Chef—a sign that the video is increasing brand awareness.

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Harmon Brothers produced the video for a fee that McLaughlin declined to disclose, and the agency also takes a percentage of the ad spend since it helps Camp Chef promote the video via social media. The Grill God’s sales pitch has been distributed primarily through Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. According to an analysis of SimilarWeb data, traffic to CampChef.com has surged since the campaign launched. Total worldwide visits more than doubled year over year for two out of the last six months.

“The campaign [investment] was worth it in terms of the revenue and traffic it has generated,” McLaughlin says.

Before it was apparent that the ad campaign would sizzle, McLaughlin says the Camp Chef team knew the brand had to differentiate itself in order to steal market share from competitors such as Traeger, Pit Boss and Rec Tech Grills. According to McLaughlin, messaging had to be spot on to accomplish this.

The epiphany, set to the soundtrack of a gospel choir, is a nearly five-minute digital short that explains how the featured product combines the convenience of gas with the flavor of a wood cooker. The Grill God narrates a demonstration of how hardwood pellets are fed into a firebox to fuel the equipment as an internal fan circulates the aroma like a convection oven to infuse food with wood seasoning. Then, the meat is finished on a sear box that can reach 900 degrees—nearly double the heat achieved by a wood fire—for a caramelized crust.

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The video’s cheeky vibe—as seen in a cameo from a vegan goddess who abandons her strict diet and converts into a carnivore after catching a glimpse of delectable brisket—is Harmon Brothers’ modernized take on the traditional infomercial.

Keeping the momentum going

“I know our product is better—it’s just a matter of effectively conveying what sets us apart and in a palatable way for certain demographics,” McLaughlin says. “We’ve had some measure of success—so, how do you capitalize on it? How do you keep the momentum going? That’s the constant worry for me.”

He says e-commerce sales increased 117.4% in 2017—to an Internet Retailer-estimated $13 million—and is likely to reach an even higher growth rate by the end of Camp Chef’s fiscal year 2018, which ends March 31.

It’s important for retailers to have a “moving window” of a marketing budget to do things in an incremental way so that if and when an initiative takes off, there’s room to push harder, McLaughlin says. In other words, don’t blow the whole year’s budget in one fell swoop.

The Camp Chef digital and marketing teams run extensive reports to see what the company is netting at the end of the day and ensure they remain within a comfortable margin. A deep dive into data analytics has allowed McLaughlin’s six-person e-commerce team to identify micro-trends in the Grill God campaign and make adjustments accordingly.

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“You want to mash the gas pedal,” he adds. “When you know the iron is hot, you strike.”

The brand has seen a lot of growth during the last 12 to 18 months, McLaughlin says. Just three to five years ago, e-commerce accounted for between 1% and 3% of total sales at Camp Chef. Two years ago, online sales jumped to 10% of overall sales. And in the retailer’s current fiscal year, digital’s share has been hovering around 18% to 20% of total sales.

McLaughlin and others in the outdoor cookware industry point to pellet grills as a hot, up-and-coming item that used to be considered a specialty item but now is starting to penetrate the mass market. Fueled by pellet grill sales, Camp Chef says it hopes to climb its way up the ranks of retailers selling to outdoor enthusiasts. In 2016, merchants in the hardware/home improvement and housewares/home furnishings categories that offer outdoor living items sold $229.9 million on the web, up a healthy 15.2% from $199.5 million the prior year.

Beefing up the site

McLaughlin says the company has come a long way since it launched its catalog-oriented website in 1998, when the “rudimentary” site simply offered a phone number to call in orders. By 2001, customers could actually complete a purchase on CampChef.com. Between 2003 and 2005, he says the e-commerce channel kicked into high gear as consumers started shifting more to online shopping and a customer in a remote area of Wyoming could discover and order a Camp Chef product and have it delivered.

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Several years ago, the company moved to the NetSuite Inc. cloud-based enterprise resource planning system to eliminate the bottlenecks inherent in the old platform since it couldn’t integrate seamlessly with cloud-based platforms. Payment processing, sales tracking, warehousing and shipping all were problematic before the switch. Since then, McLaughlin says it’s easier to integrate order management and inventory data and that business was able to grow substantially faster. Camp Chef’s shopping cart platform through Magento Inc. can communicate with the NetSuite system.

Now, Camp Chef is focused on a site redesign and beefing up personalization through technology vendor Dynamic Yield.

“If someone has done research on cast irons, our site should use that browsing history to populate Dutch ovens to create an environment that lets the customer know they’re in the right place,” McLaughlin says. “We should read their shopping behavior and modify what our site offers up accordingly. That’s what’s going to take us to the next level.”

 

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