I’m fascinated by the designer mutt phenomenon. Not because people are capitalizing on what was once free, or the sharp rise in people breeding animals as novelty, or even because a much-loved rescue mutt is part of my family, but by the amazing marketing force that has led to the demand for all things “doodle” or “poo”. Rarely do we see cases of product image turnaround this extreme, achieved with so little investment, by so many! Yet somehow these once free furry friends now command high dollar price tags from just about anyone, anywhere in our country. What changed? It’s simple, really: they became branded businesses and applied marketing.
Looking back over its history, this change is really quite remarkable. Once upon a time, the humble mutt, or mixed breed, was a free dog, given away to loving homes after an accidental union led to its birth. No matter if one parent was a Labrador Retriever and the other a Poodle, this kind of dog could be found in road side boxes, pounds, and rescue centers for free or a nominal adoption fee. They were so common that the word, “mutt”, earned a reputation as somewhat lesser than its purebred cousins. As lovable as these dogs are, they were never on the same price list as a purebred, American Kennel Club recognized and registered breed. That is, until marketing came along.
In terms of business, designer mutts are not a proprietary product, which explains the rash of sellers across our country. Anyone with access to two unaltered purebred dogs of different breeds can create a designer mutt. These “entrepreneurs” don’t have to go through years of product development and testing, earn certifications or training, purchase rounds of advertising campaigns, or wage fierce trademark wars before peddling their wares. Instead, they can one day say, “I have a dog, you have a bitch, let’s make lots of money,” (best sung to the Pet Shop Boys’s 1985 single, “Opportunities”), add a catchy name, and start posting on the internet. Voilá, a designer mutt! Cha-ching.
Which is precisely what makes this a fascinating phenomenon. Usually high dollar products are the result of limited demand. It makes sense: the less accessible a product becomes, the higher its premium. This logic has been the driving force behind almost all luxury brands and limited edition runs worldwide, and non-puppymill purebred dog breeders rely on curated bloodlines to stay in business. In terms of purebred dogs, higher price tags often reflect expensive bloodlines, adherence to breed standards, registration fees, cost of care, show fees, etc. Designer mutt breeders, however, have by-passed this entire process and created an impressive demand of willing buyers with comparatively little effort.
How did they do it? Through minimal branding and, lately, the power of social media. By coming up with silly, memorable names that appealed to families, designer mutt breeders played right into their buyers hands and established a movement. Call a dog a Pekingese and Poodle cross-bred and the price goes down and she’s left at the pound. Call it a “Peekapoo” and suddenly giggling children are asking parents if they can bring it home. Often, adults are happy to emphasize the silly name as it’s no longer a low cost symbol, a “mutt”, but something of status with its own designer label, and a conversation starter.
As more and more people post Facebook and Instagram photos of their fuzzy little “Peekapoos” at play with the kids, others buy in and it becomes an excitedly mentioned and discussed brand following the question, “what kind of dog do you have?”. Suddenly sharp-eyes catch on that adding a silly name is a low cost way to enter the dog breeding world, and more breeders enter the market with their own designer mutts. Pugapoo! Shorgi! Pitsky! The creativity, volume, and cuteness of the photos posted only enhances these new brands.
Perhaps without fully realizing it, these breeders are creating content-based campaigns that support their brand and lead to word of mouth marketing. Stories delivered to parents often begin and end with an emphasize on the mutt’s suitability with families or as companions, not on the generations of careful breeding, awards won, and selectivity that preceded the dog’s birth. In other words, designer mutt breeders are posting content that appeals directly to their buyers’ concerns rather than touting their own business successes. They’ve drawn people in and are handsomely rewarded for their efforts. This may have been born out of necessity because they are, after all, selling what was once free and common, but it’s still an excellent marketing lesson that can be applied to any business setting. As a side note, I do feel for any ethical breeders, designer mutt or purebred, dedicated to developing a quality product who are lumped in with the get rich quick breeders.
Some of the savvier designer mutt breeders have taken their content a step farther by adding an “adopt me” element to their postings and web sites. While effective in that they’ve heaved a sense of emotional goodwill and societal contribution onto the purchase, I’m not a fan of marketing falsehoods, and asking buyers to “adopt” a mutt from its breeder at a four figure adoption fee is, perhaps, going a bit far. The business lesson behind it – giving buyers satisfaction of a purchase well done and a general sense of accomplishing something worthwhile – is sound, and is the basis for many a business sponsorship and community program.
No one knows how much longer the designer mutt trend will be around, but its fundamental marketing lessons and achievements as a branding success story will be worth studying for quite some time. However it has happened, the way mutts have been reinvented as in-demand brands is fascinating, and I will continue to watch the trend with interest!
Written by Bonnie Taylor, CCS Innovations, LLC’s Chief Marketing Strategist and author of the bestselling book, I Think I Need Marketing. Named one of 2014’s “Top 40 Digital Marketing Luminaries & Educators” by the Online Marketing Institute, Ms. Taylor has spent the last two decades focused on Strategic Marketing and has been instrumental in leading many small to mid-size businesses to growth awards and international expansion.