In journalist Kim Kavin’s book, The Dog Merchants, she investigates the complex businesses and networks involved in the buying and selling and “homing” of dogs: breeders, pet stores, pet brokers, the AKC, local shelters and rescue organizations. It is her goal to advance the conversation on how dogs are treated, from puppy mills to high-kill shelters. In the following excerpt, Kavin explains how rebranding shelter dogs can make them more desirable and, therefore, adoptable.
Her face is pallid, probably not just in the black-and-white photograph, but also in real life. She’s looking back over her right shoulder at the camera with eyes desperately wide and bloodshot. Nobody has to hear her speak to know she needs to be set free. “Chained to a desk with nothing but a mouse to entertain her,” the flier’s big type reads.
In another flier, it’s a male, also pale-faced and hunched over. He looks as if the air all around has become so thick, so stagnant, that he can no longer bear to rise. The corners of his mouth are turned down, darn near weighted by jowls. “For nine hours a day, he is kept in a tiny box,” it states. “And ignored.”
These fliers aren’t of dogs. They’re of people—models photographed sitting in office conference rooms and in the glow of a cubicle’s computer screen, wearing the dismayed expressions shared by so many nine-to-five prisoners of concrete jungles, all as part of a groundbreaking campaign called the “Human Walking Program.”
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It sprang from the brain of Jake Barrow, a creative director in the Melbourne, Australia, office of GPY&R, a creative agency that is 600 people strong with a network of 186 global agencies. Barrow and his colleagues typically work on campaigns for big-ticket clients including the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival and Australia’s Defence Force, but he had an idea that had been in the back of his mind for a few years, and no matter how many times he tried to turn it off, it kept lighting him right back up.
“We were going through a busy period at work, and occasionally, I would walk a friend’s dog just for fun,” Barrow says. “And I thought, ‘Oh, that could be a service for office workers, to go out and walk a dog, completely to benefit the human.’ That was years and years ago, and I just remembered the feeling I got from walking that dog, and it was really good stress relief. It was completely selfish. I’ve been trained to recognize a good idea, and together with my copywriter at the time, we turned it into the Human Walking Program.”
There was no client. No income was to be made. That didn’t stop Barrow and his partner, who worked pro bono on the concept for six months and built it into a small presentation, sort of a miniature version of what they might do for a regular advertising customer. Then they asked one of the account salesmen at GPY&R to call the local shelter in Melbourne— which happens to be The Lost Dogs Home, founded in 1910 and today serving as Australia’s largest, caring for more than 31,000 dogs and cats each year.
“I said, ‘Hi, I’m Jake, this is Dan, we have this idea,’” Barrow recalls with a laugh. “They definitely saw the benefit of showing the dogs as the heroes instead of just sad. We did completely flip it around and say, ‘It’s about the humans getting out of their cages.’”
Shelter workers gave the GPY&R fliers to commuters from 8 ’til 9 a.m. in central business district train stations the week of the event, and they passed them around at all the buildings near the park where the walk would be held. Social media and radio stations were engaged as well, to spread the message that humans needed a break and a stroll—“to go walkies,” as they say Down Under—perhaps even more than the dogs did.
When the day arrived, the weather was gorgeous. Barrow, like everyone else involved, found himself standing in a park, waiting with a rumbly stomach, wondering what the heck might happen next.
“We were quite nervous,” he recalls. “Are we going to get the crowds we want? Is it going to be too big of a crowd? Is somebody going to get bitten by a dog? There were a lot of unknowns. You can only do so much planning for these things.”
During the next few hours, his unease gave way to elation. More than 5,000 office workers came outside to stand right alongside him, leaving behind their ergonomically accented desks for a much-needed meander the way nature intended. The Lost Dogs Home paired each participant with a homeless pooch so they could get to know one another in the fresh air, outside the shelter environment, in a way that would all but obliterate any ingrained ideas about the dogs and let them be seen as the happy, friendly pups they had always been inside their enclosures, where most of the people would have never seen them at all, or might have assumed there was something wrong with them.
“Their negative stereotype still exists, in our experience, because people do not realize that cats and dogs largely end up at shelters as a consequence of a human circumstance,” says Martha Coro, a spokeswoman for The Lost Dogs Home. “The Human Walking Program was first and foremost a creative campaign that challenged people’s intrinsic beliefs about lost and abandoned animals, [and] that also engaged a real-life event to tie it all together.”
After the three-hour walk, amazing things happened. Every one of the dogs got adopted. Hits on the shelter’s online adoption pages spiked 42 percent. A fund-raising appeal one month later became the shelter’s highest-grossing in nearly a decade. Barrow says it was one of the most satisfying days of his life—and even he failed to predict the impact his idea would have next.
“We did the event and the campaign, and whenever we do something more unusual than a television commercial, we create a case study, and we did that with this event and how successful it was,” he says. “Somehow, the website Upworthy got hold of the case study, and the next thing you know, we had half a million hits on this case-study video, and we’re getting calls from all over the world wanting to do a Human Walking Program in their own cities. We ended up saying we can’t ignore it, so we set up a website that lets people create their own Human Walking Program. People can download all the ads and localize them to their area. It’s a step-by-step guide. I know someone did one all the way over in the U.S. The calls were coming from everywhere.”
What’s so great about thehumanwalkingprogram.org— in addition to the fact that it hands over, for free to the world, what Barrow estimates as an $80,000 to $100,000 creative campaign—is that it also makes clear how to copy the strategy as much as the actual walk.
“The creative rebranding of adoption dogs came first,” Coro says, “which in a way [was] just as influential as the event.” And she’s right. What sets the Human Walking Program apart on a crucial level is its professional marketing approach. It was developed by seasoned pros, as an advertising initiative that helped people get to know the product—great dogs— instead of making a desperate plea for money to save their tragic little lives. Beliefs about homeless pooches are often so deep-seated that it takes a physical change of space or a professional advertising campaign to knock biases out of people’s thought process, much like getting them to buy generic-brand foods at the supermarket or new-brand cars off the lot.
“The ads with the sad dogs, I guess there was a time and a place for it, but as far as the general public goes, it gets squashed over now,” Barrow says. “We need something else to wake us up and pay attention.”
More and more shelters around the globe are coming to the same conclusion and partnering their efforts accordingly. Instead of begging people to see the wonderful pooches they know are inside the enclosures, they are looking to leaders in everything from creative design to architecture to retail sales to make new messaging work. It just might be the beginning of an unprecedented rebranding effort, potentially on the scale of what breeders did starting in the mid-1800s when convincing dog lovers that purebreds were the ideal pets in the first place.
The signs of change are worldwide. In Berlin, Germany, the animal-protection society turned to the renowned architect and cat lover Dietrich Bangert to design its multimilliondollar facility, one of Europe’s largest at 163,000 square feet (more than 15,000 square meters, about the size of the largest Target retail store on the U.S. East Coast). The Berlin shelter holds about 1,400 animals at a time and cares for about 12,000 animals a year. Bangert has serious drafting chops and is perhaps best known for his work on an art museum in Bonn and the German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven; the result at the Berlin facility was a far different environment than most people imagine as an animal shelter, a modern study in concrete and water so futuristic that it was used as a set for the 2005 Charlize Theron film Aeon Flux, set in the year 2415.
Creating the architecturally inviting space gave potential dog owners a chance to breathe a bit easier when walking inside, so their brains would take precedence over any bad feelings created by more typical shelter buildings. They looked up instead of feeling down. They intuited that it was okay to relax, because nothing they were about to see would depress them. The professionally designed atmosphere allowed people’s minds to focus not on what they thought a shelter might be like, but instead on what was actually before them: friendly, healthy dogs the volunteers had gone so far as to house-train prior to sending them home, in the hopes of making each pairing more likely to stick.
Yet another example is in Costa Rica, where the Territorio de Zaguates shelter had nearly all mixed-breed dogs while adopters primarily wanted purebreds, so it worked with the San Jose–based creative agency Garnier BBDO to launch a marketing campaign around the idea of “unique breeds.” Instead of calling the dogs mutts, they followed the same branding convention long used by breeders, labeling the dogs as things that sounded surprisingly like kennel club– recognized Dandle Dinmont Terriers and Finnish Laphunds: Chubby-Tailed German Dobernauzers, Fire-Tailed Border Cockers, Alaskan Collie Fluffyterriers, White-Chested Dachweilers, and Brown-Eyed Australian Dalmapointers. (Is it really any different from inventing a German Blabrador?)
Watercolor artists painted renderings that mimicked the design of the purebred standard drawings, then added the unique breed names in a highfalutin, royal wedding–worthy typeface. The posters created a visual way for people to process the message that breed names, when it comes to choosing a pet, are often no more than a line of marketing copy.
By the end of the Territorio de Zaguates campaign— “When You Adopt a Mutt, You Adopt a Unique Breed”—the shelter’s dogs had received more than $450,000 in news and public-relations coverage. More than a half-million people had discussed and shared the dogs on Facebook. Adoptions went up 1,400 percent, and the shelter got sponsors who now cover the whole of its operating expenses.
All in all, the teams in Costa Rica and Germany experienced the same thing organizers of the Human Walking Program saw in Australia: Working with professional marketers and designers made a huge impact on people’s perceptions about the dogs, who were suddenly in demand and welcomed into people’s homes en masse—even though the pooches themselves hadn’t changed at all.
“We have been inundated with interest from shelters from South Africa to the USA, which leads us to believe that shelters across the world generally share the same priority of changing the public’s perception of shelter pets,” Coro says from Melbourne, “and now there is a tried and tested plan that can help us all do that.”
Mike Arms is a business-minded advocate who saves dogs without making any excuses for raising their value along with the professional value of the people working with them. Since 1999, he has been president of the Helen Woodward Animal Center in California, where he tripled adoption rates while charging some of the highest dog-adoption fees in America and recruiting employees for their business and marketing savvy. (As of 2013, according to an independent auditor’s report, the center’s management salaries and benefits totaled $373,420. Arms’ pay was not itemized.) Nobody can buy a dog from the center for less than $399. A couple of Labrador puppies sold recently for $500 apiece, and a six-month-old Goldendoodle went for $1,000 not long ago. Arms has no problem telling adopters they should pay fair market value because his dogs have just as much intrinsic value, and make just as fabulous pets, as the purebreds going for similar prices from breeders. “Why is it,” he asks, “that somebody can go out and spend $2,000 or $3,000 on a pet and after thirty days realize it’s not for them, and they take it to their local facility, and the minute it crosses that threshold, the value is gone?”
His approach leaves many shelter operators with mouths agape, especially the ones who can’t even give their dogs away for free. Arms believes that their failure has nothing to do with the quality of the dogs, but instead with the quality of the dogs in people’s minds, which he sees as the job of shelter directors to manage. The problem isn’t the dogs. The problem is the marketing.
“I’m getting more and more frustrated with my peers as I get older,” he says. “It just seems like they’re going backwards in time now. They think the way to increase adoptions is to lower fees and come up with gimmicks. That doesn’t increase adoptions at all. All that does is devalue the pets. How in the world can we change the public’s perception of these beautiful pets if we’re the one doing this?”
The root of the problem with homeless dogs and pricing, he says, goes back to the way many rescue organizations got started. It’s usually a woman who finds a puppy in the street and gets him into a loving home. The woman likes the feeling of having done right by the pup, so she helps more dogs, and then more dogs, until she decides to form an organization along the lines of a humane society. “They weren’t getting paid for it,” Arms says. “They just liked doing it as a hobby. So they felt, ‘If I’m not doing it for pay, nobody else should be doing it for pay.’”
Try telling a breeder he should care for all the dogs for free and give them away out of the goodness of his heart. Rescuers often have a completely different mentality, Arms says, one that devalues their own worth as well as the worth of the dogs.
Arms regularly finds himself standing on stage in front of a room filled with rescuers who fit that mold, most of them women, even today. He tells a particular story again and again, one that seems to make the message clear. It starts when he asks them what they would do if they were invited to a formal dinner banquet at a high-end restaurant. What is the very next thing you’d do, he asks, after you accepted the invitation?
To a person, they answer that they’d go out and buy a new dress. “Now, human nature is that a lot of people will put a budget on what they’re going to spend on that outfit,” he tells them. “You go out in the department store and start trying on outfits and none of them fit you right. The color’s not right. You get depressed and you’re going to walk out, and then on your way out you see a dress that’s a hundred dollars more. And it fits. And you buy it. You’re willing to spend three hundred or four hundred dollars on that dress that you’re going to wear three or four times, but you’re not willing to spend it on a dog. What are we teaching the public about value?”
Arms loves dogs just as much as the rescuers in the audience do, but he treats the pooches far more like products than most of his colleagues might—because he believes that’s what gets them into homes. He’s had courtesy shoppers from the department store Macy’s come through his shelter to tell him what he can do better in terms of staffing and displays. He brought in BMW salesmen to train his staff. (“Nobody is a better salesman than a car salesman,” he says.) As of this writing, Bruce Nordstrom, former chairman of the upscale retailer Nordstrom Inc., was scheduled to do training at the center, all because Arms believes the sales techniques in the dog-rescue business need a swift reboot into the modern era of retail sales. He wants to be the BMW of the used-pooch industry, the place where buyers can go and know they’re getting a top-quality product worth every penny of the extra money, not unlike a pre-owned luxury sedan.
“They can call it adoptions or rehoming or whatever they want,” Arms says of rescuers, “but they’re in the business of selling used dogs. And they’d better be good at it, because those lives are on the line.”
Arms has been invited to speak to shelter directors everywhere from British Columbia in Canada to multiple cities in New Zealand, preaching the philosophy that shelters should be run by the savviest marketing and sales people, raising their prices and preaching the overall value of every great pup. Shelter directors should have a heart for dogs, but first and foremost, a mind for business—because that’s the only thing that breaks through stereotypes and helps dog lovers understand what they’re really getting for their money.
“We have to change the public’s perception,” he says. “The public believes the pets in pet facilities are there because there’s something wrong with the pet. We have to teach them that the pet is there because there’s something wrong with the person who had the pet. That’s the reality.”