Children's Book Next: Meow Mix TV pulls off PR coup

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A big black-and-yellow "No Dogs Allowed" sign greets all who enter the Secaucus, N.J., headquarters of the Meow Mix Co. The tongue-in-cheek notice is part of a deliberate management message, begun just over one year ago when investment firm J.W. Childs purchased the cat-food maker from Ralston-Purina, to flaunt some "cattitude," as the company calls it.

This includes interior decor sprinkled with sculptures and paintings of cats and "litter box" signs on restroom doors. Even employee titles are feline-focused: CEO Richard Thompson, for instance, calls himself "top cat." He describes the company's mission not just as selling pet food, but as "keeping cats happy."

Of course, cats don't buy food. So Meow Mix Co., third in the category and stalking companies with far larger marketing kitties-Procter & Gamble Co. and Nestle-tried a novel approach to reach cat owners.

With its advertising and public relations agencies-Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners and Lime, respectively, both part of the KB Creative Network, New York-Meow Mix Co. developed a multi-pronged communications strategy ranging from TV programs for cats to a children's book featuring an illustrated Mr. Meow. "We've got an asset that is as good as Mickey Mouse, and we want to leverage it," Mr. Thompson said. "We ought to be the Disney of cat lovers."

singing cats

In 2002, soon after winning the account, Kirshenbaum and Mr. Thompson tapped into the brand's history and reprised Meow Mix's popular singing-cats commercial, created in 1974 by ad shop Della Femina Travisano & Partners. With cat owners who grew up humming the Meow Mix jingle now reminded by the familiar TV and print ads, Kirshenbaum embarked on consumer research. When the research revealed that cat owners often leave their TVs on for their pets, Kirshenbaum and Lime executives had the idea to create an actual TV show for cats and their owners.

"It had all the elements of a great promotional platform," said Claudia Strauss, president, Lime, looking back on the process. "It meshed with the client's strategy of keeping cats happy" and the creative possibilities were tremendous.

For the agency, creating "Meow-TV" rather than advertising allowed executives to develop new skills. And Lime quickly recognized the public relations value. "When the question, `What cat-food company is making the first TV show for cats?' was asked on `The Hollywood Squares,' " said Ms. Strauss, "I knew we'd done it."

For the marketer to land on its feet, it had to overcome some challenges. The programming had to appeal to cats and their owners with integrity-an advertorial, for instance, was out of the question-and humor while also building Meow Mix's brand. The content had to be "something Richard [Thompson] could sell to his board," said Mr. Kirshenbaum, and also something that would sell to a cable or a network channel and attract advertisers. All of this had to be accomplished on a budget of less than $400,000 for two shows.

Meow TV, produced by Half-Baked Production, launched May 30 on cable network Oxygen. It is hosted by comedienne Anabelle Gurwitch and her cat, Stinky, and met all the criteria. It's silly-but-serious TV-a series of segments mock home-shopping channels and exercise-at-home shows-interspersed with footage cats might really like and videos of real-life cats (Toby, aqua-cat extraordinaire) sure to appeal to humans. It also carried ads for products including Clorox, PetCo. and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

talk value

Whether the effort boosted sales of Meow Mix, down 4% through April (see chart, this page) has yet to be seen. But it's undeniably raised the talk value of the brand: Media interest in the TV show's production and related talent searches for cat lovers in major markets generated over 153 million impressions in national and local print and TV outlets. With a budget of $400,000, "that's pretty efficient as a way to communicate messages," said Katie Delahaye Paine, chairman, Institute for Public Relations' Commission on Measurement and publisher of online newsletter "Measure of Success."

In addition to "MeowTV," which has another round in development, Meow Mix has struck a deal with West Coast book publisher Frog, publisher of hit children's book "Walter the Farting Dog," to create and publish a children's book featuring the illustrated character Mr. Meow.

Tentatively titled "Mr. Meow's Amazing Alphabet Adventure," Mr. Meow will be the book's so-called author, and illustrations will feature him in his Meow Mobile, a real-life asset the company also acquired from Ralston-Purina. "We're not going to advertise cat food," said Richard Grossinger, co-founder and publisher of Frog. "To be an acceptable book, it must stand on its own,"

Meow Mix's Mr. Thompson, who attended the recent International Licensing Show at Javits Center in New York, is discussing deals to license the image of Mr. Meow on such things as lunchboxes or umbrellas. "We think this thing has got lots of legs."

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