Lenovo’s Gavin O’Hara shares how he and his team found success with authentic, unscripted unboxing videos

This past May, Lenovo won a “Best in Technology” Shorty award for their extreme unboxing video — featuring a grizzly bear unboxing their new ThinkPad X1 Extreme laptop.

The video received over 1.6 million views and 851 shares, but according to Global Social Creative Lead Gavin O’Hara, the extreme video — “Bear vs. Box” — was the culmination of seven years of normal unboxing videos.

These videos started back in 2012 through a conversation between Gavin and Lenovo Brand Ambassador Kevin Beck.

Gavin said this was around the time that unboxing videos were first starting to find popularity on YouTube.

“We saw an obvious angle into unboxing because people nerd out on our Lenovo ThinkPads — especially our engineer-focused audience,” he said.

For Gavin, the unboxing videos also presented an opportunity to shy away from standard product videos.

It was very gratifying because we were doing something super simple but also kind of radical, and it was succeeding. Gavin O'Hara
“Generally a product tour for a laptop would have the product spinning on a pedestal with a spotlight on it, and there’d be some stock music,” he said. “There’s a predictability to them. The idea that Kevin and I had at the time was to do unscripted videos, which was and is still radical in a lot of corporate spaces.”

He said he and Kevin were ideal co-hosts because they have a natural banter as friends.

According to Gavin, that banter was particularly important because they were focused on making the videos quickly, casually, cheaply, and — most importantly — without a script.

“We were spending one hour in a studio at work with one videographer from our internal comms team, two cameras, and that’s it,” he said. “We had an outline, but once the camera rolls it was one take and we were done. There were flaws, but the idea was these are very authentically done by two guys who like each other, one of whom knows a lot about the product and one of whom knows enough to prompt the other guy.”

Gavin said those flaws even worked in their favor because they wanted to preserve the nature of those casual unboxing videos that people already loved — even though they’re coming from a brand.

“Those early ones were pretty amateurish, and we were okay with that,” he said. “As we went along, we grew it, put it in a studio, and included some more branding elements.”

Early on, it quickly became clear the videos were performing well on YouTube.

As we went along, we grew it, put it in a studio, and included some more branding elements. Gavin O'Hara
In some cases, they were earning twice as many views as their more standard product tour videos, which they were spending $50-100K to produce. A couple of them got a quarter of a million hits — all organically.

“We weren’t putting any paid behind them at that time,” he said. “It was very gratifying because we were doing something super simple but also kind of radical, and it was succeeding.”

At first, Gavin said they did get some internal feedback questioning the video choices. “I was happy to hear their feedback,” he said. “But I stuck to my guns because I knew this was what people wanted.”

Over time, Gavin said that feeling was validated through YouTube stats that suggested they were driving nearly 40% of all the subscriptions to the channel from these videos.

Once the videos started garnering more internal support, Gavin started working with product managers to strategically align his videos to their new products.

“If there’s a ThinkPad T Series coming out, I’d talk to whoever is in charge of marketing and tell them about our unscripted videos and ask to do one on their new product,” he said. “We’ve gotten more efficient over time, and we now try to have the video ready for the day the product comes out.”

In early 2018, Gavin and his team began a series of meetings with Lenovo’s brand team to brainstorm disruptive social content.

We've gotten more efficient over time, and we now try to have the video ready for the day the product comes out. Gavin O'Hara
After ideating with a few members of the brand team, two ideas arose — doing a riff on their previous unboxing and Extreme IT videos, and doing it in time for IFA, Europe’s biggest tech show, which takes place every September in Berlin.

That collaboration between the social media team and the brand team turned into an “extreme unboxing” in which an 880-lb grizzly bear would unbox a Lenovo product.

At the same time, the ThinkPad team was working on a new product called the ThinkPad X1 Extreme, an extremely durable and capable machine. They decided to incorporate this laptop into their extreme unboxing and present it to the audience a couple of days before the product was unveiled so the video would end up being a teaser.

They shot the video in Montana in the summer of 2018 and commenced planning on how to package it.

We saw an obvious angle into unboxing because people nerd out on our Lenovo ThinkPads — especially our engineer-focused audience. Gavin O'Hara
That process involved the team going up to Bozeman, Montana for a few days, where a ranch owner had a grizzly bear he’d raised since infancy that they rented for the duration of the shoot. Once they had the footage they needed, Gavin and his team started thinking about how they wanted to present it to their audience.

“We decided to present the final video as a Facebook Live—instead of a YouTube video—on the eve of IFA,” he said. “We also realized through this process, even if we’re presenting a long form video, we still have to hook people in the first five seconds. So, we ended up adding narration from Kevin and myself to ground people and connect it back to all our other unboxing videos.”

According to Gavin, while they put more money behind filming, editing, and promoting this video, the structure of their narration didn’t change.

“Other than Kevin Googling facts about grizzly bears, there was virtually no prep,” he said. “We did the narration for the video just as we always do, in one take. So here we are, two employees doing their improvised narration on a 15 minute-long Facebook Live. It’s a little bit counterintuitive and weird, and that kind of thrills me when I think about it.”

Because they were using a different platform than usual, there was some concern over how it would perform.

“Facebook Live is not something we do a lot of,” he said. “There was a lot of nervousness about the form and whether people would arrive at the video in real time.”

Gavin emphasized that their super-fan group, the Lenovo INsiders, were a huge help because they jumped in the comments section right from the start and kept the reactions going.

“I was really happy not only with the video but the fact that the banter was so fun and created a sense of community. Especially at a time when social media has really lost a lot of that feeling,” said Gavin. “That part of it felt really good, and we weren’t selling anything, there wasn’t a click to buy.”

Then, 36 hours later, Lenovo announced the ThinkPad X1 Extreme.

Kevin and Gavin shot a standard unboxing video in Berlin IFA, where they connected to the two videos for their audience. “That became the punchline of the bear video,” he said. “It was n ice to pay it off in a way that was meaningful.”

With the success of the Bear vs. Box video and the overall unboxing series, Gavin is more confident than ever in how valuable long-form content can be.

“Good content delivered well will keep people’s attention, no matter the length,” he said. “I think the victory that we’re winning is building excitement and engagement around our company not only by being daring, but also by building relationships with people by being memorable and doing weird things — as long as there’s a methodology behind it.”

According to Gavin, simple, direct, straight-from-the-heart content beats overly glossy, produced content every time.

“The simplest things can be so effective,” he said. “We were onto that early on and we stuck with that. The thing that’s been a consistent truism throughout these past 10 years is that people just want you to be straight with them.”

“I think this spirit of being as sincere and direct with people as possible is the thing that wins out in the end,” said Gavin. “To me, this approach—whether you’re doing deeper storytelling or a simple Instagram photo—is what people want.”

Gavin O’Hara has been a member of SocialMedia.org since 2015. You can follow him on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn.