screen shot of Bullfrog Spas web series
screen shot of Bullfrog Spas web series

Bullfrog Spas’ latest marketing move isn’t an ad, a splashy new website or an extensive rebrand. Believe it or not, it’s a comedy about a high school principal.

In late 2014, the spa manufacturer debuted “The Principal,” a web series about Dr. Gary Foote, the principal of Brookfield High School, and his daily adventures dealing with his students and co-workers — especially his assistant and apple of his eye, Billie Gene. The series, which completed its first season in late December, airs exclusively on YouTube.

“The Principal” marks Bullfrog’s foray into entertainment-based web content, the latest wave in online marketing. So far, major brands like Chipotle, Denny’s, IKEA, Target and others have hopped on the bandwagon by releasing shows, and the people at Bullfrog are excited to add their name to the list.

“This is the future of advertising. This is new to our industry, but it’s not new compared to what a lot of other brands are doing out there,” says Jake Ricks, Bullfrog’s online marketing manager.

screen shot of Bullfrog Spas web series screen shot of Bullfrog Spas web series 

The branded web series is defined by its emphasis on entertainment over product placement; it’s about telling a story that’s representative of the brand’s “personality” and connecting with its intended audience. This approach is a great way to reach millennials, the highly coveted demographic of tech-savvy 20-somethings whose brand loyalty isn’t as much about “transactions” as it is a relationship between company and consumer.

“One of our priorities in this series was to be entertaining and not necessarily promotional in terms of pushing our brand,” Ricks says, “That’s something we pay close attention to.”

Taking a soft approach to promotion seems counterintuitive — or is it?

Finding an Audience

“The Principal” was conceived as an idea between Ricks and the company’s Creative Director, Sam Madsen, as a way of creating more original video content and experimenting with new advertising trends.

“Jake and I had been having a lot of conversations about content in general, and video content specifically,” Madsen says. “We came to the conclusion that if we were going to do something with mass appeal, we were going to put together an entertainment series.”

When planning the core concept and plotline, the team chose to focus on characters in their 20s to 30s to reflect their intended demographic for the series: people either on the cusp of, or perhaps a few years away from, hot tub ownership.

“It might seem like [“The Principal”] would appeal to a really young demographic of YouTube users, teenagers primarily, but the way we’ve produced it and some of the references we use in the content are proving to have an appeal to people a little bit older than that,” Ricks says. “Not necessarily your current hot tub buyers, but maybe the people that are five or 10 years away in terms of age demographics.”

This group, Madsen says, is a valuable market for two reasons. First: It’s an ignored demographic among hot tub manufacturers, which tend to target baby boomers. Second: There’s a slice of this market — the treasured millennial market — that has expendable income of its own thanks to high paying jobs in science and tech.

“I think if our industry doesn’t change what we’re doing pretty quickly, we run the risk of losing a group of potential spa buyers who are 25 to 35. They’re just getting to that stage where they’re able to buy hot tubs, but traditional marketing isn’t really reaching them,” Ricks says.

With that in mind, the web series is more of a long-term strategy for Bullfrog that raises awareness of the brand.

“It’s very competitive to catch somebody once they’re looking for a spa. If you can grab them before they’re looking, you’ve done most of the work,” Madsen says. “Then, when it comes time to make a purchase, the decision is almost made for them.”

Choice Casting

That might make sense, but none of it works without viewers. And while brands like Target and Chipotle have enough social capital to help a web series quickly gain momentum, the hot tub industry lacks that kind of visibility — not to mention a particular brand within the hot tub industry.

“One of the great things about this isn’t just the series and how it’s bringing attention to Bullfrog, but it brings top-of-mind awareness for people that may be in this consumer category but don’t even know we exist,” Madsen says. “And that’s not even from a Bullfrog level; that’s from an industry level.”

Nevertheless, as of this writing, the first episode of “The Principal” has garnered more than 14,000 views. One secret to that kind of success: the onscreen talent.

The stars of the show, including Eric Artell (Dr. Foote, above right), Manon Mathews (Billie Gene, upper left) and Marcus Johns (student heartthrob Calvin Brady) are all active on Vine, a service that enables users to make and share short, five to six second videos. Since the app’s initial release in January 2013, it’s exploded as a video platform, especially among up-and-coming comedians, and that was exactly who Ricks and Madsen wanted to hire.

While they’re smaller names, the bond between these “celebrities” and their respective audiences is far stronger than what you see with A-list stars, Madsen says. On top of that, these actors are also far more willing to promote their latest projects via Twitter and Vine than their A-list counterparts.

“Where an A-list actor is going to be talking to their channel maybe once a month or a couple times every other week, these guys are doing it multiple times a day,” Madsen says. “So having that sort of fan interaction and loyalty to those people immediately goes over into whatever project they’re doing.”

While the series stars share their tweets and Vines about the latest episode, Bullfrog is doing their part to keep viewers engaged with a hot tub giveaway. A chance at a free hot tub is more than enough incentive to keep watching, right?

Signs of Success

The branded web series is yet another point in the evolution of online marketing. Within the hot tub industry, whose consumer-focused strategies could be described as “traditional” at best and “outdated” at worst, it’s ground-breaking.

“We don’t live in an age where TV and radio ads are all there is, so it doesn’t make sense for our advertising to look like it did 30 or 40 years ago,” Ricks says.

So far, Bullfrog dealers are embracing “The Principal” and see it as valuable content to share on their company social media accounts.

“We have several dealers that are really engaged,” Ricks says. “I think it’s a bit of a challenge to understand and dealers are pretty entrenched in what they’re doing day to day, but ?our dealers are really excited about it.””

Watch the first episode below:

Cailley Hammel is Managing Editor of AQUA Magazine.