It was a face that launched a thousand memes. Grumpy Cat’s unblinking stare and look of perpetual peevishness turned her into an instant celebrity after her picture was first posted online in 2012. In the years before her death in 2019, the furious feline amassed a following of 2.5m on Instagram, and drew millions of hits on YouTube, raking in a fortune endorsing everything from cereal to video games. Her page continues to post posthumously (including, yes... an NFT range).
In the decade since Grump Cat went viral, pet influencers — or “petfluencers” — have become a regular feature on social media. Animals such as Tuna, a rescue mutt famous for his endearingly ugly underbite, and Mr Pokee, a happy-looking German hedgehog, command huge fees to promote airlines and hotels. Their owners flog their own lines of merchandise and photobooks. Tika the Iggy, a Montreal-based Italian greyhound, has earned celebrity-status modelling canine high-fashion, not just for doggy brands but designer labels like Hermes and Moschino.
A single sponsored post might cost a brand up to $15k
A single sponsored post from the biggest petfluencer names might cost a brand up to $15k. But as owners spend ever more on food, pet tech products and apparel for their animals, there's a growing need for these advertising services.
“Because we have so many new products in the pet market, there is demand for new communication channels. It is very hard for brands to get that [reach] through mass media,” says André Karkalis of TONY, a German “petfluencer agency” that connects a bank of more than 1,000 Instagram-famous pets in Europe with brands including BMW and Vodafone.
A story-driven marketing strategy
Having recognised the boost that petfluencers can give their products, brands must calculate how best to engage with them. Old-fashioned product placement may not be good enough. Consumers have grown increasingly distrustful of influencers hawking endless different products to their followers. This is especially true when it comes to items such as pet food, where owners tend to find a brand that works for them then stick to it.
“The best days of this kind of advertising are behind us,” says Michael Hurnaus, founder and chief executive of Austrian startup Tractive, which makes GPS trackers for dogs and cats. “It’s not something that's sustainable. You can't ask the same influencer to say every three weeks that “this is the best product”, because their audience is limited and they’ve already seen it before. What we have learned is that it's all about storytelling. It’s making [the product] a natural part of their story.”
Karkalis agrees that the best campaigns will be based on richer narratives. “Nobody wants to see 100 pet food adverts from a petfluencer,” he says. “Pets are family members, and petfluencers are emotional in everything they do, so we need to create emotional moments as well.”
One of his company’s recent campaigns saw a famous chocolate labrador “test-drive” a BMW. A new campaign for Sammy’s, a dog treat made by the German company Bosch Tiernahrung, will loan petfluencers a campervan so that they can create engaging content over a week on the road. “The more we can make it creative and interesting, the better the results will be,” Karkalis argues.
Bigger is not always better
It's not only big and pricey names like Tuna or Tika that can generate value for brands. Beneath them is a growing army of smaller petfluencers, whose followers number in the tens of thousands. “A petfluencer’s followers are smaller in number” than a beauty or lifestyle influencer, Karkalis explains, “but they have maybe the perfect target group for most of the brands.” Most people do not want to follow a dog food company on social media, so “even a smaller petfluencer has a higher reach than most brands,” he points out.
Some companies, including Tractive, have built up their own internal teams to single out and work with petfluencers. “We found that some petfluencers who had 5,000 followers performed really well for us, and that there were some that had 100,000 followers that did not perform at all,” says Hurnaus. “So we try to look at a combination of follower numbers, plus the average interactions with each post.”
It is increasingly hard for influencers to fake followers or likes, but brands must still be wary about who they engage with online. “We’ve learned that there are quite a few companies that try to game the influencer marketing world, saying they can give you access to a million petfluencers,” he says. “One has to be very careful about what to look for and what to pay for, because we did work with some groups where there was zero impact, zero response.”
One solution is for companies to identify long-term partners who can promote their products in “a more natural” way, says Hurnaus. That might involve a petfluencer visibly using the product, but waiting for followers to ask about it rather than overtly trying to sell it to followers. “Most of them [petfluencers] are interested in doing long-term partnerships, because I think influencers have understood that if they show 19 different products into the camera, that at some point they're going to be burned,” he says.
It's not only pet brands that are recognising the value of petfluencers: Instagram’s most famous pets promote everything from fashion to food. Yet for animal-facing products in particular, petfluencers have become an essential part of advertising. The $15k per post that top petfluencers can charge puts them in closer alignment with lifestyle and beauty influencers, says TONY’s Karkalis. Even the costs of working with the smaller names is going up.
Now I'd say at least every second brand is working with petfluencers
“Three years ago, the fees were on a totally different base, but petfluencers have become more expensive to work with,” he notes. “Three years ago, we had to explain to companies what petfluencers are, and companies were asking 'do we need this?' Now I'd say at least every second brand is working with petfluencers. It’s a must-have now.”
This article first appeared in our monthly Unleashed Pet Tech newsletter, a collaboration with Purina Accelerator Lab. All content is editorially independent. Sign up to our newsletter here to keep up to date with the latest goings on in the European pet tech industry.