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Lovable Animals Create Formidable Brands

Many successful brands have built their brand equity on the backs of animals. Figuratively speaking, no PETA protest required. It’s a known fact that cute and lovably animals can help sell brands. Real animals and anthropomorphic animals can make a brand likable and memorable – two important brand drivers.

Sixty-eight percent of American Households Have a Pet

There are three-times more dogs and cats in the USA than people in Canada – 90 million dogs and 94 million cats, respectively.  In Canada, the same trend exists with approximately 8 million cats and 6 million dogs (Ipsos Reid). Does this mean cats are the preferred pet? My Facebook stream would indicate that cats rule the world. But dogs aren’t too far behind. Actually, more brands use dogs than cats in their branding efforts.

The Power of Animals

A UK research study found that fifteen percent of people care more about their pets than their significant others. There is a special bond between animals and humans. Dr. Ann Berger says this “is part of our evolution, and it’s very powerful.”

This bond can be traced back as 15,000 to 30,000 years ago to a Bonn-Oberkassel dog that was found buried with two humans.

In the early 1970s the term ‘human–animal bond’ was first used in academia. Since then, there have been a multitude of research studies indicating the positive benefits of pets such as lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and stress-related hormones. Lower stress has positive health effects and helps us live longer. Even an aquarium of fish can help calm a person with advanced Alzheimer’s disease (Edwards and Beck, 2002; Edwards et al., 2014).

Walt Disney understood that animals attract an audience. One of his first successes was the lovable Mickey Mouse who became synonymous with the Disney brand.  Mickey Mouse brought Disney great fame and a fortune worth over $5 billion. Walt was obsessed with making his animated animal characters more realistic with human-like facial expressions, movements, and feelings. He pushed animators and technology to their limits.  Charlotte Olsen in her article Disney Movies: Anthropomorphism concludes that “humans empathise [sic] with animals perhaps more so than we do with humans.” We all grew-up on a staple of Disney anthropomorphic animal characters every morning like Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald and  Daisy Duck, Goofy and Mickey’s pet dog Pluto, to name a few. Then there were the endless movies.

Brands hope to transfer our love of animals to not so loveable products.

A Brand’s Best Friend

People young and old love animals. Cute and innocence sells.

Four of the biggest cereal companies built their brands on animal characters. We grew up staring at cereal boxes prominently showing Cornelius Rooster on the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Tony The Tiger on Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, Toucan Sam on Froot Loops and BuzzBee on Honey Nut Cheerios.

The breakfast cereal market was worth over $37 billion US dollars in 2016 with Kellogg’s brands and General Mills accounting for over 60% of the market. How did these anthropomorphic animals end up on millions of cereal boxes?

Cornelius seems like a natural fit as a rooster, crowing as you eat breakfast at the break of dawn. But, John Harvey Kellogg, a devote Seventh-day Adventist, was working on a number of strict vegetarian recipes that lead him to discover Corn Flakes in 1894. It was his intent as a religious man to reduce dyspepsia and masturbation with this new product. I am not sure how successful he was with his plan, but his brother formed the Kellogg Company in 1906 with Corn Flakes. Cornelius didn’t appear on the box until the early 1950s.  After learning this history of Corn Flakes, a cockerel on the cereal book now has a very different connotation.

In 1952, Kellogg’s introduced Sugar Frosted Flakes of Corn. There were four different boxes with four different anthropomorphic animal characters: Katy the Kangaroo, Elmo the Elephant, Newt the Gnu, and of course Tony the Tiger. It wasn’t long before Tony became synonymous with the brand by advocating its GR-R-REATness.

Another Kellogg’s brand, Froot Loops, debuted in 1963 with Sam the Toucan, a tropical bird with a long colourful beak. The original colours on the beak used to represent the three different coloured flavours in the box. When first sold, the brand was called Fruit Loops but after a legal challenge claiming that the word “fruit” was misleading they landed on “Froot.”

Honey Nut Cheerios is a variation on the very popular Cheerios brand that was introduced by the General Mills Cereal Company in 1979. The sweeter version of Cheerios became an instant success. For the first twenty years, the bee on the box just keep buzzing around without a name. In September 1999, General Mills launched the “Name the Honey Nut Cheerios Bee Contest” where 11-year-old Kristine Tong won the contest with the name “BuzzBee”.

In 2017, with declining sales, the brand launched a highly emotional campaign called “Help Bring Back the Bees” by removing Buzz the Bee off the Honey Nut Cheerios box. In their haste to save honeybees, they accidently included invasive seeds in their bee-friendly wildflower seed packets. Attention to detail is always important.

Nonetheless, the famous Leo Burnett and his agency created some of the most icon anthropomorphic animal brand characters like Tony The Tiger (Kellogg’s), Hubert the Lion (Harris Bank), Morris the Cat (9Lives), Charlie the Tuna (StarKist), and Toucan Sam (Kellogg’s).

Animals Don’t Bite the Hand That Feeds Them

The benefits of using an animal to build a brand are multifaceted. Not only can you control how the animal is portrayed, you can modify it at any time. Of course, cartoon animals are the easiest to manage over time. Animals are cheaper and easier to keep on a leash than any actor or celebrity. Unless you were Grumpy Cat, who is estimated to have earned millions. Animals can also help low-involvement product brands get noticed like insulation (pink panther), toilet paper (kittens, puppies, and bears) and sugar water (polar bears).

Using real animals does possess some challenges. Animals may not follow orders and have shorter life spans, but in most cases these problems don’t stop the brand from finding a look-alike. There is never any risk that the animal character is going to embarrass the brand at a party or in public unless it’s a mascot.

One immediate benefit of animals is that they have existing cultural meanings. These characteristics can quickly be transfer onto the brand as a benefit or attribute. Animals can telegraph a specific message without using any words. For example, the eagle portraits honesty and trust, the rabbit symbolizes fertility and approachability.  The owl stands for wisdom, bees imply diligence, and the lion, the king of the jungle, suggests strength and courage.

Brands Gone to the Dogs  

Several studies (Spears, Mowen, Chakraborty (1996), Moyers (2001), S. M. Stone (2014)) have analyzed the types of animals use in advertising and branding. They found that dogs were the most popular animal. Karen London, PhD says, “In recent years, dogs have appeared in about a third of all television commercials.” Man’s best friend portrays a feeling of a happy, well-balance family and unconditional acceptance. Dog lovers are all about building companionship. Many brands use dogs to project fun, love and loyalty.

One of the first brands to use a dog in its brand identity was Gramophone Company. Their logo design was taken from a painting of a dog listening to a phonograph by Francis Barraud in the late 1800s. The story goes that Francis’s brother died and willed him his phonograph player, records, including voice recordings of his brother, and a fox terrier dog named Nipper. Every time he played his brother’s recorded voice the dog would run over to the phonograph and listen intently.  A true Hallmark moment.

The painting was called “His Master’s Voice.” About eight years later they changed their name to HMV. Later, the Victor Talking Machine Company acquired the graphic design. In 1929, Radio Corporation of America RCA acquired Victor and made the logo their brand. For many decades Nipper and his son Clipper helped promote RCA records, RCA televisions and RCA electronics. At one point in time the RCA dog became one of the Top Ten Famous Brands.

Several memorable Super Bowl commercials can thank a fury four-legged friend for their success. Skechers, Budweiser, Amazon Alexa, Bud Light, Taco Bell, Doritos, and Volkswagen all secured their success with a dog. Rob Schutz, past VP of Growth at Bark & Co., says a social media suave dog can fetch anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 per sponsored post on Instagram. “All sorts of brands want to tap into dogs,” says Schutz. Go fetch!

But the funniest animal commercial on Super Bowl XXXIV (2000) was a cat commercial called “Cat Herders” by Electronic Data Systems EDS. The following year they did another spot called “Running with Squirrels.” I’m not sure rats with long bushy-tails had the same charm.

Cat Paw-sitive Branding

There are dog people and cat people. According to a study by Denise Guastello, an associate professor of psychology at Carroll University, people who said they are dog lovers are more outgoing, energetic, and tend to follow rules. Cat lovers are more subdued, introverted, open-minded and just more sensitive. They also score higher on intelligence. Guastello rationalize that “if you’re more introverted, and sensitive, maybe you’re more at home reading a book, and your cat doesn’t need to go outside for a walk.” Cat lovers are more interested in the affection their feline’s exhibit. In a study by Budge, Spicer, Jones and St. George (1996) they concluded that “men with a cat were considered nicer, more stylish, and more active than if they had a dog.”

The most famous brand cat was Morris The Cat who built the 9Lives cat food franchise of over 50 years.  Morris made his debut in 1968 after he was discovered at the Humane Society in Hinsdale, IL. The orange tabby cat had the right attitude and starred in over 50 9Lives commercials, including several Super Bowl appearances. In 1983, Time Magazine declared Morris “The Feline Burt Reynolds”. US Magazine called Morris the “Animal Star of the Year” (1982-84). He is also credited with “writing” three books on cat care. Over the years, this finicky cat food connoisseur has downplayed his negative attitude to reach the new millennial customer with a more “charmingly choosy” attitude. Not surprisingly, this cat is on all the social media channels. Morris was played by at least three different tabby cats or maybe more.

ReelSEO.com has reported that there are over two million cat videos on YouTube generating over 25 billion views. Sorry dog lovers but cats rule the social channels. For example, the keyboard cat video has garnered over 55 million views and over 87 thousand comments. CNN estimated that there is over 6.5 billion cat pictures on the internet. Cats will outsmart dogs every time!

The most famous cat of them all was Grumpy Cat (also known as Tardar Sauce) who stared in a Christmas movie called Worst Christmas Ever. This popular internet meme has also appeared on MTV Music Awards, The Playboy Morning Show, and American Idol. We all know that Grumpy isn’t really grumpy, but we have projected a human emotion onto the animal. Their passiveness allows us to put words in their mouth. What does this have to do with branding? In 2013 Grumppuccino was launched by Grenade Beverage, a California coffee company, with the Grump Cat’s face plastered on every bottle.

In 2018, Grump Cat was awarded $710,000 in damages from Grenade Beverages who breached Grunpy Cat’s copyright by adding another product Grump Cat Roasted Coffee in 2015. Grenade Beverages must be grumpier.

On May 14, 2019, Grumpy Cat passed away, but her valuable brand still lives on.  Over 800 different merchandise items are still available for sale online with Grump’s face on shirts, mugs, cell phone covers, shoes, posters, etc. She has also been immortalized as a wax figure at Madame Tussauds in London, San Francisco, and Washington DC.

Grump Cat isn’t the only celebrity cat online. There is a clowder of famous cats online like Lil Bub, Nala Cat, Cooper the Photographer Cat, and Colonel Meow, to list a few. If a brand can cash in on animal marketing, the brand would be a fat cat!

The Animal Kingdom of Brands

One of the first cigarette brands launched in 1913 by R.J. Reynolds Company was Camel cigarettes with a camel front and center on the pack, a palm tree and a pyramid in the background.  Not the most lovable image or animal. No. They were going after exotic. The camel emphasized “Turkish blend” and the pyramid signaled Egyptian sophistication of 6,000 years of history and culture. At that time archaeologist were busy raiding the tomes of pharaohs.  

Before launching, R.J. Reynolds tried to create an alliance with the other local tobacco manufactures to control competition in the specialty cigarettes market, but the US Supreme Court ruled the agreement was illegal.  When the teaser campaign “The Camels are coming!” was launched, it was considered a joke. But where there was smoke, there was fire. The camel on the cover design was called “Old Joe,” and he quickly became the brand face of the over 425 million packs sold in the first year.

In ten years, Camel cigarettes took control 45% of the US cigarettes market. In December 1952, Reader’s Digest, a best-selling international journal, published a series of articles called “Cancer by the Carton,” dealing with the health risks of smoking. The effect was immediate and cigarette sales declined for the first time in twenty years. In 1958, to help stimulate sales, R.J. Reynolds decided to revamp the Camel package design by removing the pyramid behind Old Joe. There was a strong negative backlash by Camel smokers.  Where have we heard this before?

By 1970, Camel cigarettes was no longer one of the top five most popular cigarettes brands which were Winston, Pall Mall, Marlboro, Salem, and Kool.

Kool cigarettes were launched in 1933 with Willie the Kool Penguin to help market the new menthol cigarettes. The penguin suggested “cold” to promote the cool sensation of the menthol. By the early 1960s Willie was put on ice and retired from representing the Kool brand.

On the 75th anniversary of Camel cigarettes, Joe Camel, an anthropomorphic camel, was introduced to celebrate Old Joe’s birthday – “75 years and still smokin’!” Joe Camel was such a hit that he took center stage as the “smooth character.” Critics said that Joe’s exaggerated nose was a phallic symbol to suggest smoking is a virile pursuit. Actual scientific fact would differ with this suggestion.

Joe Camel gave the brand a huge lift in sales as a cooler, hipper brand, especial among younger male smokers. It also started attracting the attention of anti-smoking activists who were growing in power every day. On July 11, 1997, The New York Times ran the following headline “Joe Camel, a Giant in Tobacco Marketing, Is Dead at 23.” After only nine years Joe Camel character was proactively pulled from Camel cigarettes marketing. President Clinton was quoted as saying ”We must put tobacco ads like Joe Camel out of our children’s reach forever.” Proof that lovable animals can endear a brand and sell even butts.

A Brand Personality Starts with a Lovable Animal

Animals have successfully helped many brands standout. Planosophy blog said, “Brands are metaphors for inanimate products and intangible services. Animals are living breathing metaphors. Their marriage is one of common sense.” These brand advocates range from pets, farm animals, wild beasts, geckos, and sea life. They have enriched our lives and have become ingrained in our physic like Disney characters. There is an innate positive and hopeful feeling that animals portray with unconditional love. They touch our inner innocence and create a warm, comforting smiles that no human could emulate. They are a powerful ally, if used correctly.  

Be the brand your animal thinks you are.