When a pop culture icon passes away, the news media races to publish obituaries. Hollywood celebrities and fans react with tributes on social media. And brands that partnered with the star publicly pay their respects.
However, one icon mourned this month was a cat, illustrating the wild world of social media, where some of the most followed and beloved influencers aren’t people at all. They’re pets.
The late Grumpy Cat, famous for her frown, has more than 2.7 million followers on Instagram, 8.3 million fans on Facebook, and more than 1.5 million followers on Twitter. On May 14, her owners posted to those channels the sad news that Grumpy Cat, real name: Tardar Sauce, died at age seven following complications from a urinary-tract infection. It was trending news.
Even The New York Times published an obituary. Actress Aubrey Plaza, who voiced Grumpy Cat in a 2014 Lifetime movie, posted a photo of the two with a caption that read, "my heart is broken" and brands such as Honey Nut Cheerios and Friskies shared statements of tribute.
"Our condolences go out to her family at this heart-breaking time," said a representative for Friskies, which started working with Grumpy Cat in 2013.
If brands can learn anything from Grumpy Cat’s rise to fame, it could be how much people identified with and found joy in someone else’s furry companion.
Tabatha Bundesen of Morristown, Arizona, began sharing Tardar with the world after a photo of the cat on Reddit went viral in 2012. The feline’s permanent surly expression, the result of dwarfism and an underbite, instantly delighted people and gave rise to the "Grumpy Cat" alias.
"There was such an identifiable personality with Tardar," notes Coyne SVP Jennifer DeNick, who was recently named by trade media brand Pet Age as a 2019 Woman of Influence.
"She represented everything that people who are not cat people think cats to be, which is cranky, grumpy and ready to jump out from behind the couch and scratch your feet," she says. "I don’t think Grumpy Cat was lightning in a bottle. She had a unique look and really smart pet parents who built a brand."
With the aforementioned TV movie and commercials, line of merchandise and even a wax figure at Madame Tussauds, marketing experts say Grumpy Cat proved a pet could become a mainstream influencer. She also demonstrated the advantages of pet celebrities over their human counterparts.
"The thing about pet influencers is that their content never gets old; cat videos and pictures are always going to be funny to most people and make them smile," explains DeNick. "The pets, themselves, also never get old. Kid influencers grow up, but pets always look the same and have the same personality."
The new cat’s meow: micro pet influencers
Grumpy Cat isn’t the only animal to have become a social media star. Jiff Pom, which is short for Jiff the Pomeranian, has more than 30 million followers on her social channels and has made guest appearances at events for the likes of Facebook and partnered with Target and Banana Republic on sponsored posts and ads. Nala Cat has also proven catnip to social media users, topping 4 million Instagram followers.
PR pros say tapping into a pet influencer can be great for reach, but the sheer growth in the number of social media pet accounts has changed the game for influencer communications. According to a 2017 survey of 1,000 pet owners by BarkBox, one in 10 (11%) has created a social media account for their pup.
"There used to be hundreds of pet influencers," says DeNick. "Now there are hundreds of thousands and all with different personalities. Some pets are known for pop culture photos, some for travel and adventure, others for seemingly dressing and acting like humans. There is a lot to sift through."
David Yaskulka, CEO at Nature’s Logic, which produces 100% natural food for dogs and cats, has worked with pet influencers Nala Cat, Lil Bub (a special needs cat with 2.1 million followers) and bulldog Manny the Frenchie (1.1 million Instagram followers).
He has also worked with 50 smaller pet influencers.
Yaskulka says a bigger impact can be had with lesser-known cats and dogs. The social media stars of the pet world can command $10,000 to $16,000 for a single sponsored post and hundreds of thousands of dollars for integrated programs combining social, licensing, appearances and more.
"If you’re a smaller company, you just can’t afford to be the highest bidder," points out Yaskulka. "But there is a category of pet influencers whose owners are much more discriminating and will only align with brands that have a particular perspective, quality, or affinity to them or their pet."
He says one tie-in for brands is philanthropy. Lil Bub, for instance, has a partnership with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Last month, Clorox’s Scoop Away clumping cat litter partnered with Lil Bub on a program that included packaging, sponsorship of a cat show and a donation to Lil Bub's Big Fund for the ASPCA.
Yaskulka is planning to build an influencer program for Nature’s Logic with pets connected to sustainability and reducing their ecological footprint.
Kerry Sutherland, who bills herself as "America’s Dog Mom" and a media expert on pet topics, is founder and CEO at K. Sutherland PR. Her agency crafts influencer programs for brands including Kurgo, a supplier of dog travel supplies and accessories, and health insurance brand Pets Best.
Kurgo works with Instagram account Camping With Dogs. While its 57,000 fans are comparatively smaller to the top dogs in the space, the content, featuring owners and their pets on outdoor adventures, aligns with Kurgo’s brand values.
"It absolutely shouldn’t be just about the [follower and fan] numbers," says Sutherland. "You can get highly targeted to what you are trying to sell and who your audience is. If you’re a hip and joint supplement, for example, there are many pet influencers very specific to large breeds, which are more likely to have a mobility issue than smaller breeds."
On Pets Best, K. Sutherland PR executes weekly outreach of up to 50 "fur baby" owners on Instagram via the comments section or private message. Typically millennials, they are new pet owners who treat their dog or cat like a baby, complete with documenting their first days and weeks on Instagram.
"The program is about reaching out to these pet owners at the right time for Pets Best health insurance," Sutherland says.