If anyone needed proof that catvertising has come into its own, it was the announcement earlier this summer that Grumpy Cat—the sour-faced feline who happens to have 6.3 million Facebook fans—will be starring in her own Christmas movie. Details of that film (like, for instance, how a cat is supposed to hold down a lead role) are being ironed out as you read this. But just in case Grumpy Cat’s screen test isn’t quite up to Garbo standards, one thing is certain: If the cat doesn’t know much about acting, she knows plenty about branding.
Then again, lots of cats do.
Sure, Grumpy Cat has made all the headlines—and pounced on most of the big endorsement deals—in recent months. These include TV spots for Friskies and Honey Nut Cheerios, two books, and enough branded merch to fill a shelter—everything from plush toys and key chains.
The truth, however, is that the use of spokescats was actually with us long before the coming of Grumpy Cat—and even before the coming of the Internet. Garfield was the major attitude cat of the 1980s. As the pitch-cat for 9Lives, Morris was turning up his nose at competing brands nearly half a century ago.
It doesn’t take a business degree to see why marketers have historically liked cats; it’s because people like cats. According to the ASPCA, somewhere between 74 million and 96 million felines share our homes. Cats account for an estimated 15 percent of all Web traffic now, and—mark those calendars, kids—the third annual Internet Cat Video Festival opens in Chicago on Sept. 9.
But does consumer acceptance of felines necessarily translate to the acceptance of the brands said felines are pitching? Well, not necessarily. Psychologist and veteran branding consultant Robert Passikoff, who runs New York firm Brand Keys, points out that sharing a video and buying a product are two different things.
“Cats are cute, and they resonate with people. But awareness, in and of itself, doesn’t do it,” Passikoff said. “This generation of marketing and creative people [seem to] feel that entertainment equals engagement. And it does not.”
It does, however, make for an interesting hall of fame. Whether or not spokescats have moved the sales needle, we’ve had some good pitch-cats over the years. Below, a roundup of famous felines who found careers in marketing.
The Fancy Feast Cat
You know her, all right—that white puff of privilege, served by a liveried butler who summons her with a fork tap on her crystal bowl. On the air since 1982, the cat is reportedly a chinchilla Persian and there seem to be a small union of them. (The names we found include Phoebe, Aladdin, Angelina and Belissima.) Fancy Feast’s kitschy commercials seem to be the feline analog of Grey Poupon’s Rolls Royce spots. But what would you expect from a “gourmet” cat food whose flavors include Filet Mignon and Turkey Florentine with Garden Greens?
Maru, who lives in Japan, found YouTube fame by jumping in and out of cardboard boxes. Say what you want, the cat’s routines have been watched by over 200 million people at last count. Anyway, that box thing resonated with Japanese retailer Uniqlo, which was opening a store in San Francisco last year and hired the kitty (“a mutual friend online”) to bridge the cultural gap. An online game called Lucky Cube featured Maru doing what Maru does best: Jumping in and out of boxes.
Morris the Cat
America’s original spokescat, Morris made his screen debut in 1969 for 9Lives cat food. It’s anyone’s guess why it worked: The tabby’s acerbic wit was on par with Paul Lynde’s. But Morris was only treating we humans like the dolts we are, and audiences ate it up. The original Morris (who died in 1978) was replaced by successors—one of whom ran for president in 1988. Morris is still the spokescat of record for 9Lives, but good luck trying to get an interview. “I advise you that I am contractually obligated to seek authorization before discussing any matters related to Morris,” Morris’ handler wrote us. Oh well.
When Alpo (founded in 1936 and famous for dog food) decided in 1987 to start selling cat food, it spent part of its $70 million marketing budget to sign Garfield. Cartoonist Jim Davis’ orange cat—said to be inspired by 9Lives’ Morris—appeared in 2,000 newspapers daily, and was already famous. Garfield was also obese and professed love only for people food (notably lasagna)—but nobody noticed the contradiction, and the brand’s sales soared. Too bad the cat’s snarky charm wasn’t enough to survive Alpo’s acquisition by Nestle in 1994, after which Garfield got his walking papers.
The cat that the Chicago Tribune dubbed “the Angelina Jolie of online cat films” was actually the runt of the litter—which explains her perennially extended tongue. But Lil Bub’s disability is also her selling point: Both the Humane Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have relied on her to preach the gospel of pet adoption. Somehow, Lil Bub has found time to write her biography, Lil Bub’s Lil Book, which currently enjoys a five-star rating on Amazon.
Tardar Sauce is on tour promoting The Grumpy Cat Guide to Life (note: this is her second book), and will next swing up to Vancouver for the shooting of Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever, a movie Lifetime is producing. When Grumpy Cat’s not pitching other people’s brands, she’s pitching her own, including ready-to-drink coffee Grumpy Cat Grumppuccino, which carries the slogan “It’s awfully good.” Grumpy Cat’s been awfully good for owner Tabatha Bundesen, who’s reportedly well into six-figure earnings territory thanks to a 4½-pound cat.