Why dogs aren’t just for Christmas in content marketing

You must have noticed the sudden jump in the number of pleading-eyed pugs and scruffy mutts on your screen this year. That’s not by coincidence – it’s an extremely brazen form of emotional messaging. The use of canines in B2C marketing campaigns is one of the most popular trends to dominate content marketing in 2016. We know it encourages audience sentiment, but does it actually sell?


All Bark, No Bite? Why dogs are trending in content marketing

Playful, friendly and honest: dogs are the perfect embodiment of how many modern brands want to feel to their customer base. With recent data from Adobe Stock revealing that images of puppies are downloaded 62% more than kittens, the dog is clearly a favoured creative muse for marketing teams.

At a distance, most brands are simply a logo with a slogan and some products that someone, somewhere, wants to potentially buy. Slap a cute puppy in the mix and suddenly – like magic – a brand becomes more relatable, more approachable and even more likeable.

In short, adding a dog is a shortcut to creating trust.

This formula applies even when a brand has nothing to do with dogs, just ask Churchill. Or ask Foursquare, a mobile search app who randomly included a tick box on their email preferences to “include a cute puppy picture” to increase subscription rates. The trick is that once the consumers see a certain brand associating itself with man’s best friend, there is an assumption that the managers, CEO and directors are all fans of dogs (why else would they approve a campaign where cute, little Scrappy learns how to use a laptop?).

That assumption – that a brand is less corporate and more domestic – is very powerful when connecting with an audience, building positive brand associations and inspiring social sharing. This can all be achieved through the presence of dogs in content, which is a rather simple strategy, but only works if it’s executed correctly…


When it works – “Oh yes!”

Representing a British insurance company, Churchill is an early example of the use of dogs in marketing. Although his character started as a nodding dog on a parcel shelf, today Churchie is an animated “hero” brand character who hosts his own YouTube channel and continues to appear in the brand’s advertisements.

The Head of Marketing at Churchill Insurance told Campaign: “He’s a solid and reassuring personality in a highly dynamic, often confusing, market”. Following this lead are Travelers Insurance, who employed dog actor Chopper to produce this heart-warming 30 second advert that personifies two dogs as a couple in love. Does it work? I’m not so sure.

Product marketing aside, dogs can also be used to incite reactions and engagement with the behind the scenes of brands. WeWork do this well with their Instagram hashtag #DogsOfWeWork. The use of company social media to post completely irrelevant (but cute) images of dogs in the workplace promotes their relaxed office culture, making it appealing to buy from, and work for.

If you haven’t yet met Buster the Boxer (under which rock have you been?!), the star of the 2016 John Lewis Christmas advert, join the 22 million others who have and watch this immediately:

The retailer’s seasonal content campaign was produced by creative agency Adam & Eve/DDB. It ticks all the boxes of content marketing, going well beyond simply dropping a dog character into messaging without any contextual consideration. The two minute video is complemented with the social sharing hook #BusterTheBoxer, and includes other British fauna that their audience are fond of: a fox, squirrel, hedgehog and badger. To support this further they’ve partnered with The Wildlife Trusts, produced soft toy characters for kids, launched a VR experience in Oxford Street and a soundtrack by the Vaults, available on iTunes and Spotify.

Giving the story meaning well beyond the core family pet character underpins the assumption that they are a brand with a board of directors who actually have a heart. And that is what attracts more customers through the door, on their homepage and to the checkout.


When it sort of works – “Reserva!”

By sort of working, I mean more annoyingly catchy, less cute. Take TripAdvisor’s TV advert: it tells the story of a French bulldog (currently a hipster’s choice breed) that constantly practices barking ‘book!’ before revealing this verbal skill to its owners when they are viewing online vacation deals. The high-pitched “OOK” sound prompted instant outrage online, including a heated thread on Reddit and a government petition to pull it.

Some would argue this is gimmicky marketing at its worst, but it’s clear TripAdvisor have completely missed the positive brand association that can be achieved when featuring dogs in content. Apparently the Spanish version is far less abrasive, barking ‘Reserva!’ instead.

In terms of storytelling through content, Purina obviously have every right to use a puppy. By teaming up with BuzzFeed they have produced a three minute short featuring a King Charles Cavalier and a bachelor learning to adapt to his new fluffy roommate. The video is supportive content as part of a larger campaign called ‘Puppyhood’, a site filled with interactive articles, video, pictures, social shares and… products! It’s a brilliantly executed collaboration that draws consumers in with the featured puppy and consistently pushes content out once they have this initial attention.


When it fails – “Help me”

There are plenty of poor examples of content marketing featuring sad-looking pooches, such as a poster I recently spotted from my beloved local PDSA charity advertising fluffy knitwear… with a large terrier’s face smiling at the centre of it. The best example I have recently laid eyes on is actually from ebay (yes, these guys should know better!).

If there’s ever an unhappier scene of dogs crowbarred into an e-newsletter, I am yet to see it…



Do dogs engage, or the story itself?

There’s a term coined for the inclusion of dogs in marketing, as Chris Myers explains in Forbes: “No matter how hard you work to refine your company’s message and marketing, unless you manage to connect with people on a basic emotional level, you’ll always find yourself fighting an uphill battle. I call it the Adorable Puppy Principle… puppy video works so well because it elicits feelings of joy, nostalgia, and excitement. It speaks to people’s basic emotions”.

Like any marketing trend, there’s a risk of adapting your own strategy around it too late and pushing out content at saturation point. After years of constantly building up, it feels like this may be approaching for pet-themed marketing.

With a growing number of brands simply stamping a cute face on their printed or digital adverts without any commitment to creating wider touchpoints or identifying reasons to connect, dogs in marketing is a great example of the importance of getting your storytelling spot on.

Are your audience cat people? There’s plenty of inspiration to be found from this year’s festive effort from Temptations.