"Help me get on some dog treats," read the entreaty on Twitter. The author promised "puppy kisses" in exchange for votes. The Twitter account belongs to Phineas, a Shiba Inu puppy. In March, Phineas's owners, Sal and Noelle Petruzelli-Marino, a married couple from Lambertville, New Jersey, launched a social media campaign on his behalf. The goal: to win a monthly contest held by A Dog's Life, a Santa Monica, California, maker of organic pet treats. The company puts winning photos of customers' pets on its $9 bags of dog biscuits.
Todd Thedinga, founder of A Dog's Life, decided to incorporate customers' pets in the branding when he launched the company in 2007. He soon added a photo gallery to the company's website, to which customers could upload pictures of their pets and vote for their favorites. The pooch with the most votes each month makes it onto the packaging.
A Dog's Life isn't the first company to employ this sort of customer-generated branding. Jones Soda, a Seattle-based beverage maker, for example, has long featured customers' photography on its labels. But Thedinga's contest has gone a long way toward helping him promote the company. As customers campaign for their pets, hitting up friends, family members, and strangers for votes, they publicize A Dog's Life products along the way. Since the company's first contest, sales have increased from $30,000 a month to nearly $100,000 a month, and Web traffic has tripled.
For the most part, the competition has run smoothly, but there were a few snags early on. At first, Thedinga let Web visitors rank the pets by rating photos from 1 to 5. Some customers tried to game the system by sabotaging their canine competitors with low scores. Now visitors are allowed to cast merely one vote per day for each photo they like. A Dog's Life uses technology that tracks the IP address of each voter to make sure customers aren't stuffing the ballot box.
Changing the packaging designs every month is more expensive than sticking with a static design. But Thedinga says it's worth the additional 10 percent to 20 percent in printing expenses, because customers appreciate the personal touch. "Having real dogs from real people on the product labels makes it feel like a more personal company," says Sal Petruzelli-Marino.
The success of the branding strategy owes a lot to the passion pet owners have for their animals, says Thedinga. Like the Petruzelli-Marinos, many doting pet owners display their pride on public forums. "Phineas has his own Facebook page and Twitter account, mostly because we didn't want to inundate our friends with updates on a puppy if they didn't want them," says Sal.
Those who want the updates get quite a few: The couple have posted nearly 100 tweets on Phineas's behalf, including several about A Dog's Life and the contest. "We asked friends and family to tell their friends and pass the message on," says Sal. "We never really thought he'd win, but everyone in our small town was rooting for him." Phineas ended up sweeping the March contest with more than 700 votes. The treats carrying his image will appear in stores this summer. "We immediately informed all of our friends and received tons of congratulatory messages," says Noelle. "We can't wait to see it."
Fewer than 1 percent of photos submitted to A Dog's Life win the contest, but the pet owners who participate prove to be some of the company's best customers. About 25 percent of them wind up paying an extra $3 to $4 a bag for A Dog's Life's customized treats, which include a photo of your choice on the package. And winners like the Petruzelli-Marinos typically buy several bags. "We'll be sending the treats to friends and family, as well as local fans who have given him treats and love in the past," says Noelle. Her local pet store plans to buy a case of the treats featuring Phineas. "He has become something of a local celebrity," she says.