A purr-fect way to go viral? A look at why cat memes are so popular
If you don’t attempt to make your cat an internet celebrity you’re missing out, according to a new book – How to Make Your Cat and Internet Celebrity – by Patricia Carlin. But with the Grumpy Cat movie hitting Lifetime on 29 November, what makes cat memes so popular?
Grumpy Cat. Lil Bub. Princess Monster Truck. Cats officially rule the internet – and now the silver screen, as Grumpy Cat’s official movie, Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever, hits Lifetime on 29 November. But why are the furry critters so popular?
“People from all nations, age groups and backgrounds can unite over a single cat photo because cats are both simple and mysterious,” Thea Hamrén from Mr President believes.
Both a fan of Lil Bub and creator of the Cats Save Tigers campaign for Greenpeace, Hamrén has noticed a change over the years in how cats are seen in memes.
“It’s gone from being silly things that you send around the office, with a funny tagline, to a score of big, famous online cats that people follow religiously,” she explains, while noting that the owners of the famous cats fall into one of two categories: those doing it out of love for their pets, and those who have managers for their cats and are in it for the money.
The future, she believes, will lead to more of the latter. “I’m guessing that it’s getting more and more towards that. ‘The cat looks retarded and we might make money from it’, which is very much against what the cat culture came from: love for animals and love for your pets and pure joy, which I think is a little bit sad.”
One celebrity cat which could be seen as a ‘sell-out’ is Grumpy Cat. With its own movie set for release on Saturday 29 November, Grumpy Cat – managed by Ben Lash – has also appeared in adverts.
Cereal brand Honey Nut Cheerios and cat food brand Friskies are among those who have been able to claim Grumpy Cat as a star.
“As the number one cereal in the United States, we are focused on staying current with our ads and who appears in them,” Gail Peterson, associate director of marketing for Honey Nut Cheerios, replies when asked why the cereal chose the cat to front an advert.
“Honey Nut Cheerios is always looking for things relevant to consumers today in pop culture. Grumpy Cat was a perfect fit for the brand and is popular with the whole family. We enjoyed seeing the interaction between Grumpy and Buzz the Bee in the ad.”
But what exactly is it that makes cat memes so popular?
“The key reason why cat memes have been so successful online is that cats can be used to engage intense emotional responses in users. They tend to evoke warmth or hilarity: sometimes both,” suggests Ian Forrester, head of insights at Unruly Media.
Having spoken on the subject of ‘Why celebrities are a waste of money and cats don’t matter’ at Social Media Week London in September, Forrester believes that in order for something to go viral, it needs to evoke a strong response – with cats managing this because “they are cute and do funny things”.
How to Make Your Cat an Internet Celebrity, written by Patricia Carlin with photography by Dustin Fenstermacher, looks exactly at this. Sitting in boxes, playing on a roomba and being given a roll of toilet paper are given as ways to make aww-worthy videos.
Split into chapters looking at how to name your cat (white cat called Snowball or a ginger Garfield, anyone?), looking at your cat’s personality and what words you should tag a video with, Carlin suggests you don’t want to be “the only cretin in the world who failed to cash in” on the cat meme bandwagon.
This is all very well and good when it comes to individuals making person videos or memes, but it can be different when handled from a brand perspective.
“I don’t think brands monetising memes is wrong: but the way that it is done at the moment is quite wrong, I think,” says Hamrén.
“You can’t just slap a logo on a meme and expect that to go well. You have to really get into that world and do it on their terms. It’s not really about advertising in that sense. It needs to be shared initially on the right channels: if it’s working on Reddit you know it is working. It needs to be grassroots.”
This is something that Mr President aimed to do when creating its Cats Save Tigers campaign.
Making a cat meme go viral
“It was different because we didn’t try to sell anything. It was trying to be an awareness campaign for international tiger day and just to spread the word that Greenpeace is auctioning to save the tigers and try to reach a new younger audience. I think because of the pureness of the idea – there wasn’t anything ‘sticky’ in it – that’s why it worked.”
Hamrén notes that there was “pretty much no budget” for the campaign: “Everyone did it for free and that’s why it went on to become such a success for us and exceeded all expectations when it came to reaching its audience. When you put a lot of money behind something and create a really high end to the ad for an internet meme it tends to go a little bit wrong, because it goes against the culture it is born from.”
While sharing cute cat videos may be seen as part of the cat culture, Forrester is keen to point out that only three of the top thousand shared videos feature cats.
“So while there are lots and lots of cat videos out there, there are other ways for social media success which don’t involve cats or babies,” he insists.
“Lots of brand managers can focus on cats and babies and think that is the only way to succeed in viral videos, but we’re finding that is not the case.”
So whether you’re just wanting to promote your cat because you love your furry friend, or you think a kitten will help sell your products, there are some things you need to take into account before, as Carlin puts it, the world is your litter box.
“There are a number of psychological responses that can help create a shareable ad: wonder, amazement, sadness, fear, anger. The key thing to do is to select psychological responses when best suits your brand, your brand’s message and personality,” Forrester suggests.
The cute factor is not enough.