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The Man Behind the Cat

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Why the frown? You're an Internet sensation! (Chris Barr Photography)
Why the frown? You're an Internet sensation! (Chris Barr Photography)

Ben Lashes didn't always know that he would one day manage America's grumpiest sourpuss. Before founding meme management company A Weird Movie and serving as meme manager for clients including Grumpy Cat, Nyan Cat, Success Kid, and formerly Rebecca Black, Lashes played in a band, The Lashes, for about 10 years and worked at an independent music distributor. It wasn't until his family friend Charlie Schmidt created the viral video Keyboard Cat and started asking Lashes for advice that his meme managing career was born. Lashes spoke to Direct Marketing News and discussed Grumpy Cat's rise to fame and how marketers can purrrfectly incorporate memes into their marketing strategies.

Can you give me a brief history of Grumpy Cat's rise to fame?

Grumpy Cat was born last April, so she's just over a year old. Last fall this cool guy named Bryan Bundesen went to go visit his sister Tabby. Tabby and her daughter Chrystal are the owners of Grumpy Cat. Bryan came to visit the family, they had a new kitten, and he was like “Oh my gosh! This cat is crazy looking and super cute.” He had this new camera and decided to take a bunch of pictures of the new cat. When he got back home to Ohio, he posted a couple of the photos up on reddit with the title “Meet Grumpy Cat.” So, he kind of named Grumpy Cat right then because he thought she looked grumpy right from the start. He didn't have a big following on reddit [and] he wasn't a hard-core reddit guy.  But the people who saw it immediately took notice and it got tens of thousands of comments in the first couple of days. Everybody was arguing over whether or not it was Photoshopped and adding captions to it. It took off super quick[ly].

Why are people so drawn to her?

There's some for sure magic going on with Grumpy. It's one of those faces that stops you when you're walking down the street. It's like trying to explain why the Beatles are good…. She's a special cat....It's almost unexplainable other than that certain cats tend to have that certain power over you, even if you're not a cat person. I think certain cats can have that power where they just look like there's more going on than meets the eye.

Are you allergic to cats?

I'm not allergic to cats, but I don't have cats. I have a dog.

Does that get in the way?

No actually. It keeps me professional. It keeps me from getting too emotional about anything. My dog helps me out all day. He's like my assistant.

What do you think marketers can learn from Grumpy Cat and the virality of her?

I'm obsessed with this side of the topic. It goes to prove that to really break through in this new world—where everybody has a say and the platforms make the ground even for people to be able to get their message out there—that to cut through you really have to have something that legitimately resonates with people in a real way. You can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, millions of dollars on a campaign and if the idea behind it isn't good you can't buy the hit....That's a real connection with people, which is what brands want anyway: to have a connection with a consumer and make them emotionally tied to a brand.

Memes start out with that connection to an audience…. It starts with fans that actually care about it and no one told them to or paid them to. Any brand nowadays that is trying to get to the top of a campaign with a product, their marketing has to compete with everything that goes viral. You have to go viral to have a top success. Whatever it is. If you're going for a niche audience, you need it to go viral with that niche audience. If the entire world is your audience, then you have to go viral with the entire world for you to really have something that stands at the top.

It's really those big ideas that make the biggest splash and goes the most viral. People have to be prepared to go big with big ideas and you have to take the risk that if that doesn't work, then it doesn't stop you from [going] the whole way.

How can marketers use memes effectively?

I think to use memes effectively it's all about creativity. It's all about respect to the property of the fan base, whether that's a super small fan base or a huge fan base. As much as you can, you have to respect where it comes from, what it is, what's the story is behind it, and respect that even when it seems to be it's the silliest thing that has ever come off the Internet, that there are a lot of really smart people who helped get it to where it is.... It sets up certain rules that, as a marketer, knowing those rules can mean the difference between having a successful campaign and a bad campaign.

Pepsi, for one, a while back used some different viral people. They ripped off Scumbag Steve and had an actor pretend to be Scumbag Steve and say all of these lines. It felt totally like they missed the entire reason why people liked it. And all of the comments were just 100% negative – “Why didn't you get the real Scumbag Steve? This isn't actually Scumbag Steve. Scumbag Steve would never say these things.” They just attacked it. Not because Pepsi is a big brand, but because it's a big brand that didn't get the jokes the right way and didn't respect the rules to it. In a very similar way, Brisk Iced Tea did a smaller campaign using Scumbag Steve and got only super positive press about it because they played to the audience in the right way, they kept it legit, and they were in on the right jokes…. The difference between the people who execute something that actually goes viral and the people who don't is the ability to understand how things go viral in the first place and why they go viral, and who they go viral with.

What do you or Grumpy's owners look for when choosing brands to partner with?

This goes for all of my clients. This isn't an exclusive-to-Grumpy-Cat hypothesis. There's no reason to do a bunch of small campaigns that are designed to capitalize on that we might have a million Facebook fans.... It's not worth it to us to do things on that kind of level. We like to do big cool things. Will Grumpy Cat be a spokescat to a brand? Definitely. But the brand that does it, it has to be a marriage where they go in big with the client and the client goes in big with them. I think that memes can have as much or more pull as a Hollywood, stereotypical celebrity, and I think that sometimes they have more credibility because credibility is what it starts with.

Obviously, Grumpy Cat can't speak for herself, but people can lend Grumpy Cat their voices by generating their own Grumpy Cat memes and inserting text. What kind of value do you think this audience engagement provides to the Grumpy Cat brand?

It's as good as it gets. You can spend an eternity trying to come up with something that people are actually going to want to interact with. This has it without even trying. It's something that people are already wanting to interact with. That's a hard thing to do…. People have become more ad-blind to marketing than ever. The more real that you're putting into something I think the more that people respect that.

I hear that Grumpy Cat is coming out with a movie. What do you think that's going to do for the brand?

Hopefully, it continues being a brand that people love. Obviously, you want it to be number one. You want it to be the biggest thing in the world. But…first and foremost, is that we put out something that makes people happy. If you don't start with that in mind as the very first issue, then everything else doesn't even matter. I think that's for marketing or anything else. Make something that you're proud of and make something that you think other people are going to enjoy.

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