Cashing in on Celebrity Cats

Many feline Internet stars have become household names; so how has this explosive trend impacted the pet category, and how can retailers use the trend to their advantage?

From Maru—the cat that loves boxes—to Grumpy Cat, cats today are stars of the Internet. Cat videos and memes are shared, commented on and talked about on social media more than almost any other topic. In fact, a search for “funny cat videos” on YouTube returns over 25 million results. 
But can celebrity felines really translate into dollars and cents for the pet specialty boutiques? Experts say yes.

Major pet product brands have already identified the opportunity to leverage cats’ growing popularity. For example, both Fresh Step Litter and Friskies have previously traded on the popularity of cat videos in an effort to endear themselves to cat lovers. However, cats’ rise to online stardom—as well as their position as family members in millions of households—can also equal profits and opportunity for pet boutiques. 

 “The explosion of the cat memes all over the Internet [have] done a lot to educate the general public about cats and how cool cats are,” says Frank Callari, owner of Cat House Systems, makers of Catty Stacks. He attributes the significant growth in eco-friendly corrugated cardboard cat products at least partially to the popularity cats enjoy online. “Maru cat—the cat that loves to get stuck in boxes—does a pretty good job of selling my product,” he adds. 

Cats’ celebrity status is also selling the very idea of cat ownership to what was once a heavily dog-centric customer base. “I think there’s been a really unfair and unfortunate social stigma around being a cat owner or being a cat lover,” says Aimee Gilbreath, the executive director at the Los Angeles-based Found Animal Foundation, which aims to reduce and eliminate shelter euthanasia. “And now that cats own the Internet, more and more people who do love their cats feel much more comfortable talking about it and sharing it.” 

One of the foundation’s initiatives is an “Adopt and Shop” program, which includes a pet product retail store—the sales from which help cover the costs of the foundation’s rescue efforts. It has utilized the popularity of cats online to both raise awareness and send targeted traffic into the store. First, there was the “Six Pack, Nine Lives” calendar it created a few years ago, which included photos of good-looking men with their adopted cats. More recently, the foundation partnered with the Feline Film Festival to have Lil Bub, a U.S.-based kitty star, do a meet and greet in its store.
Cat lovers bought tickets and stood in line outside the store, and after meeting her, they had a chance to shop and visit with the store’s adoptable cats. “There was a spike in everything—it was a huge traffic day for us,” says Gilbreath. “It was a huge sales day for us, and it was a big adoption day for us.” 

While not every retailer will be able to partner with the Feline Film Festival, there are numerous ways that boutiques can use cats’ newfound fame to help market their stores and increase product sales. Callari suggests that retailers pull a few videos off the Internet and play them on a loop on a small video monitor in their cat section. Not only will it help attract people to the cat aisle, but “I think that would just kind of get people in the mood,” he explains. 

And then there are all the ways retailers can use the attraction of online cat videos to market themselves right where most of the action happens—on social media. 

Share, Interact, Relate
Poochie’s Place, a luxury holistic cat and dog grooming and sitting boutique in Philadelphia, found it difficult to attract cat owners due to its name; so storeowner Amelia Breslin devised a three-part strategy to target cat lovers. First, she had the windows professionally wrapped—one with a dog and one with a cat—then she used print advertising. However, a big part of her plan focused on social media. 

“I needed customers to interact, share and relate,” says Breslin. “I needed customers to feel comfortable bringing their cat in to be groomed without feeling like the stereotype of a crazy ‘cat lady’ or ‘cat guy,’ which the media puts out there.” So, she decided to schedule advertising on her store’s fan page for “celebrity pet Mondays.” 

“I knew this was the day that most people are at work and don’t want to be there, so they are usually on the Internet or checking their Facebook right before work,” she says. “At 8:30 a.m. every Monday, there was a picture of a cat and a dog, and viewers had to guess [the celebrity owner of the] pets.” Later in the day, she would reveal a picture of the celebrity with their cat or dog. Visitors who guessed correctly had a chance to win discounted grooming. “People comment and share and also ask friends,” says Breslin, which leads more traffic to the store’s Facebook page. 

In addition to Celebrity Mondays, Breslin frequently shares funny memes and occasionally even creates her own. The key is that, in the caption, she includes the store’s information—its name, address and phone number—so when the images are shared, the store’s information is viewed by additional people. “It’s really bringing in business and is a lot of fun," she says.

But online promotions don’t have to center on celebrity pets. Retailers can also encourage pet owners to share pictures and videos of their own pets—either with products from the store or just from their day-to-day lives—and allow them to enter contests and do giveaways based on those customer submissions, says Penny Johnson, executive vice president of Sturdi Products, Inc., which develops and manufactures pet travel products. “Customers love to see their felines featured on Facebook and other social media sites.” 

In addition, retailers can specifically look for videos that highlight items available in their stores. “If they come across a video that highlights something they sell, that’s the perfect opportunity for them to take advantage of [this trend],” says Callari. “They can link to the video and say, ‘Look at this cat enjoying this particular product—now on sale for a limited time at our store.’” 

From Star to Salesman
There is one more reason it makes sense for retailers to watch cat videos online—it is a great way to predict and stay on top of the latest cat product trends. 

Just as Callari attributes some of the growth of corrugated cardboard to Maru, other pet product manufacturers point to online stars for recent increases in their own product categories. “Largely thanks to Lisa-Maris Padilla, cat expert and pet parent of the famous Abyssinian, Racy Mooney, people are starting to understand that cats are indeed trainable and make wonderful travel companions,” says Johnson. “People are traveling more with their cats, and the marketplace is offering a multitude of carriers, harnesses and safe car travel options.” 

Some experts say that the popularity of online felines has actually led cat products to outsell dog products in some categories. “There seems to be a real hunger and a lack of supply in the cat category in general,” says Chris Gardner, director of sales for Pet Head. “With Pet Head, we have seen our cat grooming line added by retailers who had success with our dog line—more often than not, our cat line out performs our dog line.” 

So, next time there is a slow day in the store, consider scanning the web for silly cat videos—not only will it eat up some time, it may offer the insight to grow traffic, sales and grow the community around the store both online and off. 

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