How the internet’s feline superstars are breaking fresh economic ground.

As another year of cat videos winning the internet draws to a close, it occurs to me that when cats rule the world — as they surely will, if only because they are just so damn cool and deserve to be in charge — and we become their pets, they may well get their own back by making us the stars of similar “human videos”. Oh, the horror, you might think. Oh, the horror of being forced to appear in content  that so thoroughly diminishes all concerned. However, please rest assured. As the cats will be the first to say, ‘But our humans absolutely love it!’

But I digress.

In truth, the cat film genre is much, much older than the internet itself. Its creation can be traced to a one-minute silent movie called The Boxing Cats, made by Edison Films in 1894. Unsurprisingly given the title, it shows two cats boxing (as Thomas Edison himself no doubt commented at the time, roflmao #LOLcats). And now, 121 years later and thanks to the internet, cat clips have become a phenomenon. In an exponential, sustainable  example of techno-evolution, the metamorphosis of cats into cultural and economic icons is powered by – and in turn powers – the growth of the internet itself. Indeed, according to 2011 research conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, cat videos account for 15% of internet traffic (in case you were wondering, the other 85% consists of 80% pornography, 4% “poorly written comments from assholes” and 1% “we have trouble identifying what this constitutes”). Just a couple of years later, in 2013, 30 million Google searches used just the word “cats”.

All of which begs the question; will cats be content to rest on their internet laurels or will the offline world also become their oyster, Ocean Fish Platter and Seafood Feast? 

The Rise of a Purr-Powered Memeconomy

In a paper published last year, The Alchian-Allen Theorem and the Economics of Internet Animals, Jason Potts, Professor of Economics at RMIT, explored what he termed “the economics of cute”. “Cute, in conjunction with the internet, affects the trade-offs involved in choices people make,” he wrote. “Let me put that more starkly: cute shapes the economy.”

It’s certainly an economic truth that cats, their online memes and videos, are big business. My personal favourite, the feline Foucault Henri Le Chat Noir has been viewed on YouTube over 15 million times. In a stroke of branded content marketing genius, cat food brand Friskies recognised Henri’s popularity and potential early on and have sponsored him as their “cat-vocate” since 2013. No figures have been released but on the back of Henri’s success, the man behind the videos, Will Braden, gave up his full-time job to concentrate on managing Henri’s interests – which now include Henri books and a whole line of Henri-branded products. However, popular though he is, Henri is but a minnow in jelly compared to Grumpy Cat and the mighty Maru.

Grumpy Cat, the squishy-squashy face of whom has launched a thousand mugs, T-shirts and “Grumppuccino” bottles, now has her own meme agent, Ben Lashes. He told the Wall Street Journal that she netted in “the low six-figures” as of last spring (not including his cut and her movie deal – more of that later) through public appearances, a best-selling book, a beverage line and a seemingly inexhaustible range of iPhone cases, mouse pads and wrapping paper, amongst other merchandise.

The most viewed cat of all with 224 million+ hits on YouTube, Maru’s weirdly well-reviewed book has already been translated into two languages. What’s more, a Washington Post analysis estimated that he could earn up to $181,000 a year (more, incidentally, than a U.S. Senator on $174,000) from YouTube ad revenue alone – that’s without any profits from sponsorship (Friskies, again), books, stuffed toy sales and DVD deals.

So lucrative, in fact, has the feline memeconomy become that now there’s even a book on the subject. Called “How to Make Your Cat an Internet Celebrity: A Guide to Financial Freedom,” it’s written in  tongue-in-cheek style (“Someday, many years from now, your grandchildren will ask about your webchat fortune…will you be forced to admit that – despite owning both a cat and a computer during this legendary Golden Age of Cat Videos – you were the only cretin in the world who failed to cash in?”) although one can’t help but suspect that the author, Patricia Carlin, secretly means every single word.

Moving Fur-ward*

Last year, a panel session at the SXSW conference touched on some of the business aspects around this phenomenon. The panel included Grace Suriel, director of social media for TV channel Animal Planet, which has been happily surfing the cat video popularity wave in recent years. She predicted that evolution of the genre would see more television brands getting involved. “Will there be a cat video channel someday? I can definitely see that happening,” she said. “It’s just going to keep moving.”

Suriel has already been proved at least half-way right: TV programmes are being replaced with cat videos. This August, Australia’s Channel Seven hit the headlines when it decided to cancel fledgling cooking show Restaurant Revolution in favour of a programme consisting entirely of funny YouTube cat videos. Despite the channel’s spending millions on Restaurant Revolution, cats proved to be twice as successful with nearly one million Australians tuning in to watch Cats Make You Laugh Out Loud and many famous Australians calling for more cats on television, including the ABC’s Q&A and Media Watch programmes.

Which brings us neatly back to Grumpy Cat. Last year the permanently unimpressed one starred as “a pet-store cat that is perpetually overlooked” in Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever, a Lifetime movie  (which should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever actually seen a Lifetime movie). It may sound even less enthralling than Lifetime’s usual tableaux of true-life and/or murder tales, but it also sounds pretty profitable for an aesthetically-challenged little cat, her owner and her sponsors.

In short, the message for content marketers and brands alike is clear. If you want to get ahead, get a cat.

(Incidentally, the cat in the photograph illustrating this article is our very own Dorothy Perkins. Perfect casting for the newly invented – by us – Cheese Vampire genre of cat videos, she’ll happily work for Cheddar, Stilton and Red Leicester, but remains spectacularly unmotivated by Edam.)

* So many terrible puns, so little time.