The Dodo makes Fetch happen (authentically)
Any other content creators building a blockbuster brand, especially in the animal space, can learn from The Dodo’s core tenet
Most companies would insist their people are their greatest asset. Not necessarily The Dodo. Group Nine Media’s animal-centric brand has built its massive body of content around a single idea: make the animal the protagonist.
“Humans take the backseat,” says Dodo president YuJung Kim. “We highlight the animal’s quirks, idiosyncrasies—what makes them tick, how they see the world—through their eyes.”
Any other content creators building a blockbuster brand, especially in the animal space, can learn from The Dodo’s core tenet: authenticity in all things.
Tap a market need, and the brand identity comes into focus
The Dodo traffics in animal success stories, whether it’s overcoming grievous dangers like illness and abandonment, or forging unlikely relationships with humans and other species. It’s an optimistic—if not uplifting—perspective, and viewership spikes during stressful news like hurricanes and elections. As such, the brand carefully positions itself as a source of joy and delight.
For that reason, you won’t find the staged shots and funny outfits common among the pet influencer trend that’s emerged since Grumpy Cat and her (often literal) copycats. “Animals are best when they’re captured authentically,” says Kim. In publishing naturalistic content, The Dodo focuses on user preference for subjects with an endearing story to tell.
That first-person branding is bedrock, right up to the shooting format. Kim says, “When live video was taking off on social, we initially went out with big, expensive cameras in anticipation of ubiquitous hi-def.” To her surprise, shaky, grainy mobile footage outperformed professional cinematography. It was a telling moment: the brand defined itself organically, contrary to strategy.
Looking back, Kim believes that ultra-premium drone view has been yoked to nature documentaries, while people expect pet footage to resemble the video they themselves shoot. The irony is that capturing an amazing moment in an animal’s day feels “less real” the more it resembles the quality of the human eye—and that’s if the crew was lucky enough to capture it.
“The reality is the best pet moments are captured on a rolling basis, 24/7,” she says. “People love feeling like a fly on the wall,” which turns editors’ unpredictable hunt for content into a meritocracy. The Dodo “had to impart the rules and set expectations of what pet media should be, by listening to our audience.
Kim shares how, as she quips, “the vegan sausage gets made.” While the brand shoots a lot of original content, it sources those moving-target stories both by combing social media and creating relationships with on-the-ground entities like shelters, organizations, and sanctuaries.
“Pursuing virality commoditizes what should be natural,” she says. Though Dodo content is a commodity, its value comes from authenticity. If you push too hard on the authenticity it vanishes, and the value goes with it. You’d be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs—or at least losing the audience for the goose’s Instagram account.
Grow before, not with, your audience
Humans are fickle. We want to be entertained, and in most cases, novelty is an irreplaceable aspect of that entertainment. A dog in a wheelchair amazes the first time, but is familiar the tenth. Social, as Kim observes, doesn’t rest, and audience fatigue is real. Posts that landed big with viewers even as recently as two years ago would tank these days.
“Maintenance is a futile objective,” she says. “The bar keeps getting higher.” That dog needs a compelling backstory, and not every platform is equipped to deliver three minutes of engagement. And identifying and populating social platforms in advance of their adoption demands resources that de facto won’t all emerge as winners. A media brand has to not only decide carefully what shape to grow into, but what direction to do it, and audiences change their tune around subject matter as well as format.
“Not all social platforms are created equal,” says Kim. The Dodo invests most heavily in “ones where people have an appetite for stories with a narrative arc.” However, even within those, the “drive-by” features of a platform, such as Instagram Stories, can feature numerous adoptable animals that guide viewers to more substantial content. It’s more important to preserve the brand identity. The goal, she says, is not to get on every platform, but to ask, "What would the Dodo look like here?"
That question has taken The Dodo beyond the digital landscape. Recent media partnerships include Quibi (R.I.P.), Netflix, and Animal Planet for shoots with production quality and depth that wouldn’t thrive on social media. The Dodo is one of the very few websites with its own line of books, and Kim says there’s a plan for a Dodo feature film.
All of this illustrates how continuing to dig a rich vein of content inevitably undermines the ground a brand stands on, but if a company explores what differs from earlier successes, it will proceed naturally along terra firma before anyone else plants their flag there. She says her site was the beneficiary of changing attitudes in the humanization of pets over the six years of its existence.
“If you look at the way people perceived animals ten years ago, much less twenty, it’s almost unrecognizable,” she says, but the more we learn about animal cognition, the more it resembles our own. That, in turn, drives innovation. The Dodo was founded on empathy; it’s since extended its roots to reach sympathy.
For that, media alone isn’t a sole stream of revenue, especially in the age of coronavirus. Quarantine obliterated major media brands’ ultimate lap towards profitability, with ad revenues contracting. Dodo parent Group Nine Media laid off 7% of its staff in early spring.
Perhaps that’s why The Dodo recently took two huge steps into the new dimension of real-world pet care.
Preserve your mission, vary your method
Until now, The Dodo has only expanded to other forms of media, and while the brand has always concerned itself with animal wellbeing, it has thus far only reported on it. But just last week it announced that it had bought a stake in Petplan, a pet insurance company that will rebrand as Fetch by The Dodo. The move will bring a quarter million subscribers into The Dodo’s orbit (if they weren’t there already). The two companies project enough room in the market for the base to double in size, though it’s worth noting that pet insurance is a notoriously difficult market to crack in America.
The investment comes hot on the tail of the company’s August partnership with PetCo, which debuted DodoWell, a pet resource site where owners can find answers to common questions, along with product recommendation roundups, vet advice, and fun trivia about animals.
Kim says of the new resource destination, “The vast majority of pet educational content is either dry and technical or poorly researched and lacking authority. DodoWell offers highly researched, yet fun content—in The Dodo voice that I think our fans have grown to know and love.”
If that voice indeed proves authoritative enough for Dodo readers, the site’s educational offerings pipeline into user communities where pet parents can find tools and expert consultancy. It will also showcase user-generated content in featured pet series, such as “Senior dogs who are young at heart” and other concept collections. Kim anticipates the formation of niche communities around particular types of pet, be it by breed, rescue, or a multitude of other common experiences. As with its social video content, the crowdsourced component is still very present, even while veterinarians and PetCo’s retail recommendations bring a new type of expertise to The Dodo brand.
Even keeping those tastes consistent, The Dodo is taking a risk in building a digital community to bridge its audience for user-generated content to a more direct role in pets’ lives. Pet insurance and telecare are two infamously challenging sectors of the pet care market, and investing time and resources in platforms are a lift even without having to shift brand identity to encapsulate it.
Time will tell if the same followers who seek inspiration and joy can engage with more somber questions of pet health in The Dodo’s framework—if Kim and company can preserve the fun where appropriate through that, Dodowell’s leap of faith will prove to have been a pole vault.