How Celebrity Pup ‘Doug the Pug’ Is Turning Internet Fame Into Merchandising Dollars

Plush-toy deal latest step in building a pug empire

Laura Perks still remembers the day in October 2015 when she got an anxious call from one of her toy buyers. The man sounded a little desperate. The holiday shopping season was coming, and a top executive at TJX Companies (operators of Marshall's and T.J. Maxx) made it clear she wanted some plush pugs on her shelves, pronto.

At first, the buyer just wanted ordinary pugs—something Perks, who's run toy company Kids Preferred since founding it in 1983—could have sourced easily enough. But after some back and forth, Perks learned the request was more complicated.

"It came to light that this was about Doug," she said.

Meaning Doug the Pug—as it turned out, the TJX executive was an avid Doug follower, and she's got plenty of company. Doug the Pug is quite possibly the most famous dog on the planet.

 

"‪When someone asks for a bite of my food‬" -Doug

A photo posted by Doug The Pug (@itsdougthepug) on

The 4-year-old, Nashville-based pet boasts 2.3 million followers on Instagram and nearly 5.5 million on Facebook. He's appeared on Good Morning America and the Today show, and chilled with celebs including Chrissy Teigen, Steven Tyler, John Legend and Justin Bieber (who kissed him backstage at the Billboard Hot 100 Festival.) In November, he released a book, Doug the Pug: The King of Pop Culture, which became a New York Times best-seller.

So Perks was under pressure to seal the deal, and fast. Nobody at Kids Preferred knew Doug, but one of Perks' product managers knew Mary Fisher, who operates Nashville-based Manhead Merchandising. Fisher knew Doug.

Actually, Fisher knew Doug's owner, Leslie Mosier, who'd previously approached Manhead to design Doug's website. Mosier is the one who, after picking up Doug from an Ohio breeder in 2012, began dressing her new new dog up in wigs and costumes, then pairing the pictures she took for Instagram with amusing captions (example: Doug wearing round glasses and Hogwarts scarf with the caption, "The Wizarding World of Harry Pugger"). The puns were dreadful, the photos were adorable, and the combination made Doug a phenomenon almost overnight.

"Doug is incredibly relatable," Mosier told Adweek. "People feel like they really know his personality."

But Mosier, who worked as a social-media manager for a record company, also understood that a social-media following is one thing, and turning it into a revenue stream is quite another. "She was interested in retail and licensing," Fisher recalls, "so we wanted to see what we could do for Doug."

That's about the time that phone call came from Kids Preferred, which was eager to put a plush-toy deal together. Because of the delays associated with hammering out licensing deals and a lengthy prototyping process with overseas manufacturers, the entire project took a year. The company was able to get some plush Dougs onto TJX store shelves in time for Christmas 2016. Now, the Doug the Pug collection is ready for a full Spring 2017 rollout.

In addition to an assortment of clip-on Dougs ($7), the collection features 11 plush Dougs in large and small sizes ($20 and $13, respectively), each dressed in a complete ensemble, from Rhasta Doug (with a crocheted slouchy bob hat and dreadlocks) to Doug in a pizza-delivery outfit.

To create the toys, Fisher and Mosier combed through the Instagram posts that received the most likes. So, in a sense, the market research had already been done. It probably helped that Fisher also had a feel for Doug's personality, having met him during the development process. "He's come to our offices, and he's very laid-back," she said. "What you see in the [Instagram] pictures is what Doug's like."

         

        Doug poses with his new collection of plush toys.

Still, internet fame is fleeting, and celebrity pets are no exception. Grumpy Cat (to name just one) clawed at the red carpet for much of 2012 and 2013, but following negative reviews of the 2014 TV movie Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever, the spotlight has moved on. When asked whether Doug might be a little late to the merchandising component of his career, Fisher demurs. "I think that 2017 is going to be the window for Doug," she said. "It's only the beginning."

Reached for comment at his home, Doug, writing with the syntactical carelessness that's become his trademark, expressed similar optimism: "U know, I never thought I'd have stuffed animals that look just like me. But I guess that's what happens when ur very cute and lovable. I've become very business savvy, but I still know how to have fun!"

For her part, Perks of Kids Preferred believes the line will do well for reasons that go beyond Doug. "We know from being in business a long time that cute sells," she said. "Even if you're not a follower of Doug, if you see something cute or funny, especially if it's a dog or cat, you're going to buy it."