Here, at Nestlé Purina PetCare headquarters, Friskies product manager Shaun Belongie helps create eight flavors of cat food each year.
In 2011, he decided to add to his creative portfolio by devising a Friskies app for the Apple iPad featuring simple video games that humans could play with their cats. True, most cats walk by the iPad and pay no bother. But some of the more curious ones find the floating fish on the iPad screen interesting enough to paw. Nestlé Purina's experiment has garnered 500,000 downloads so far. Today, the company unveils an app for Android tablets, and says it plans to release a seventh game for cats later this year.
St. Louis is the pet food capital of the U.S., thanks to Nestlé Purina, created in 2001 when Ralston Purina merged with a subsidiary of Swiss giant Nestlé. The PetCare unit is No. 1 in market share for dog and cat food, with 47 percent of pet food sales in 2011, according to market tracker Mintel. Nestlé Purina reported pet food sales of $2.7 billion for the first quarter of 2012, up 7.7 percent from $2.6 billion in the year-ago quarter.
Cats doing funny things in online videos has long been a popular pastime. Nestlé Purina's idea was to go to the next level by helping consumers do funny things with their cats via its six games. The latest, You vs. Cat, was released in March.
"There is plenty of cat content on the Internet," says Belongie. "We wanted to make sure that whatever we do as a brand is something folks can't get anywhere else. Games fit the bill."
Belongie says some 300,000 videos of cats playing its games have been submitted to the Friskies' Youvscat.com website, which Nestlé Purina also shares on its Friskies Facebook page. At press time, cats were in the lead with 5.3 million points, to 4.6 million for the humans.
Companies are searching for new ways to reach the digital consumer, and most usually turn to Facebook and Twitter to solicit consumer feedback and offer deals and coupons.
Nestlé Purina was smart to look at gaming to differentiate itself and stay relevant, says Chris Silva, an analyst at Altimeter Group. "Any experience that's unique and engaging is a great way to use social media for brand association," Silva says.
The idea for the game started with Friskies, shortly after the release of the first iPad. A video quickly appeared on YouTube showing the tablet computer attracting the interest of a cat, who swiped at it.
Belongie called digital agency Fosforus in Austin to see if it could create a game for cats.
"The proof was in the pudding with the YouTube video," says Eric Sutherland, Fosforus' creative director, which also created the Friskies website and helps manage its Facebook and YouTube presence. "There was clearly something there."
Fosforus is a cat-rich agency, with 16 cats owned by the 10-member team, so those cats became its focus group. In developing the games, the agency found that sounds distracted the cats, while loud colors and shapes intrigued them. "Certain cats are more playful than others and more interested," Sutherland says. "For other cats, it may take a few tries before they're comfortable enough to play it."
A stop at the Tenth Life cat shelter in St. Louis bore that out. An effort to engage four cats in play proved futile. Still, the games found one fan at the shelter. "I thought they were adorable," says Tenth Life director Elizabeth Frick. "I thought for sure the fish game would get their attention."
Nathan Handy, who works at a restaurant in Davenport, Iowa, pulled out his iPhone to document his mom's cat Neko taking to the iPad game, and he posted the video on YouTube. "I love to watch the cat smack at the screen," he says.
Belongie can't quantify that the games have boosted sales, but having the Purina and Friskies name out there to consumers of tablets doesn't hurt, he says. "I don't know if it's subliminal, but I will say the research we've done has shown that folks who have played the game are more interested in Friskies products," he says.
This story first appeared in USA Today.