Influencer Marketing: The Story Behind Nala Cat
On this episode of Renegade Thinkers Unite, world-famous influencer Nala Cat—who is, in fact, a cat—joins RTU to meow her thoughts on brand building, partnership marketing, and her general marketing philosophy. As she usually does, Nala brought along her two interpreters/owners, Pookie and Shannon, to help put the Nala Cat marketing philosophy into words. In the discussion, they’ll explore exactly what goes into building Nala Cat’s brand, which is notable for—other than being awesome and adorable—boasting 4+ million Instagram followers, earning Nala her own CAA agent (the only cat to do so), and so much more.
Additionally, we’ll be donating $1 (up to 1K) for every download of this episode, and the money will go to an awesome charity selected by Nala herself: Love Your Feral Felines, an all-volunteer, registered 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to rescuing cats and giving them a second chance at life. Check out LYFF’s website, and make sure to check out Nala’s episode of Renegade Thinkers Unite!
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Full Transcript: Drew Neisser in conversation with Pookie Varisiri, Shannon Ellis, and Nala Cat
Drew Neisser: When I was eight years old, on my way home from school and lost in my usual Walter Mitty daydream, I spied an orange-brown blur bouncing in the neighbor’s yard. Not sure exactly what I’d seen, I moved closer and discovered a small puffy ball of calico fur all alone but seeming as happy as can be. I picked it up and it started purring immediately. I was smitten. My eight-year-old brain wondered, now what? Could I actually take this precious cargo home? Surely it must belong to someone already. Wanting to cover that base, I knocked on the neighbor’s door and blurted, “Is this your kitty?” I didn’t even say hello.
They assured me it wasn’t theirs and they said, “We know none of our neighbors own cats either.” So, holding the kitty tight, I headed toward my house with a racing heart. What would my mom say? She was a bit unpredictable, to put it nicely. Coming home from school was always an adventure, even on a normal day, because you never knew what would unleash the Kraken. But knowing she generally liked animals better than people, I had the confidence that this little surprise might turn out well. Bursting into my house, I threw down my bookbag, I flew into my parents’ bedroom. I didn’t know what to say, so I just put the kitty on my mom’s lap waiting for a verdict. Inspecting the feline thoroughly like the vet she wished she had been and pausing with her flair for the dramatic, my mother said, “Let’s call her Samantha.” Though we already had other cats in the house, Samantha was mine. I had rescued her, would take care of her, and I’ve had a soft spot for cats ever since. It’s a little wonder that I use the CATS acronym for describing the key traits of successful CMOs.
Now, my guest today is one cool cat. No, seriously. There’s actually a fabulous famous feline with blue eyes and shortish legs right here with me in the studio. Steve Harvey calls her the Kim K of cats., she’s got over 4 million followers on Instagram, including Justin Bieber’s cats, and is the only cat to have her own agent at CAA. In fact, that agent is here with us in the room today. She’s clearly a catrepreneur too, garnering thousands of dollars for every sponsored post, launching her own line of pet food, and supporting several charities. Clearly, there’s a lot we can learn about brand building, celebrity endorsements, social media, and giving back from this business tiger. So with that purr-fect intro, please welcome Nala the cat and her pet parents Pookie and Shannon to the show.
Shannon Ellis: Hi. Thank you for having us. We’re excited to be here.
Drew Neisser: Well, Nala, it’s super nice to meet you. Most cats are just cats—you’re a brand. Not since finicky Morris the cat or Grumpy the cat has one feline come so far, so fast. To what do you attribute your superstar status?
Shannon Ellis: There are lots of layers to that. It’s pretty easy with Nala because she comes in a perfectly packaged ball of fluff that’s just amazingly cute and attractive. She is all about happiness and I think people really connect and relate to her.
Pookie Varisiri: She’s also an inspiration. She came from a shelter and now she has all these followers and people who really love her. I think it’s just everything about it.
Shannon Ellis: She gave us a good head start being super cute. Then, for us, it was about not letting her down, not disappointing her, and working hard and making sure that everything we do, we leave a positive digital footprint.
Drew Neisser: Interesting. I can’t help but wonder. I’ve met many, many wonderfully cute cats in my day, but there’s something very special about this kitty. If you had to describe Nala as a brand, what would you say her brand is?
Pookie Varisiri: I think happiness, giving back, and making the world better.
Drew Neisser: You know what’s great about that? You don’t need to see it say anymore. We’re all about simplification here and, yeah, happiness is a great place to be. In fact, we have a client that we’re hoping will adopt happiness as part of their business strategy. I notice that you’re clearly an LA cat. I mean, you took your sunglasses off, but nonetheless—you’re in New York. Why are you here in New York?
Shannon Ellis: We’re here celebrating National Cat Day. It’s the Super Bowl for cats and we couldn’t miss the opportunity to party and celebrate with, you know, adoption and rescue at its core. We feel it’s very important to promote rescue and adoption, so we created a campaign called #ShowtheBow. When you see the bow, you know it represents rescued adoption, so we made a few stops at different rescues and shelters to try to help them find forever homes. Show the Bow is part of our recently launched a national platform called Love Nala. We focus on pet health, nutrition, and rescue.
Drew Neisser: That’s very cool. There are so many things that I want to unpack there as we’re talking, but I’m going to take a quick break here for a second. We were talking about National Cat Day and I saw the hashtag, in fact, I saw it yesterday and I tweeted out about it. Is that a relatively new thing, National Cat Day?
Pookie Varisiri: It’s been around for a while. We always celebrate National Cat Day every year. I think it’s been five years now and the Bow Tie brought Shannon and together, so we want that Bow Tie campaign to bring other families together too.
Shannon Ellis: National Cat Day was the perfect moment to kick that off.
Drew Neisser: I love this bow, the blue bow. I’m watching Nala walk around with it there. Where did this idea come from? Again, I love its simplicity. It’s pretty easy and it’s certainly distinctive, but where did the idea originate?
Shannon Ellis: I had been handmaking bow ties as a way to survive. How many years ago was that? Six years ago. I started an Etsy shop and I was selling bowties to cats all over the Internet, so the bowtie went full circle. I hope the same bow that rescued me rescues other cats.
Drew Neisser: Oh, that’s amazing. That’s such a great story. I do want to go back to many years ago when you rescued Nala. Talk about that moment in particular. What inspired you? Was this the first cat that you’d rescued?
Pookie Varisiri: Nala was the first cat that I rescued myself without my family. I raised her myself too. I was living in an apartment and she was just so cute. I always grew up with animals, so I was kind of lonely without animals and I think it just meant to be.
Drew Neisser: We’re jumping all over the place here and it’s. I want to bring it back to this: we understand the Nala brand is happiness. Clearly, she’s an ambassador for that. The bow brings a real sort of mission and movement to the brand. Then you’ve launched this cat food. Wow. Talk about that for a second.
Pookie Varisiri: Throughout the year we worked with a lot of brands and we learned a lot from the pet food industry. We wanted to create something affordable and premium and good for everyone that everyone can trust, so we’ve been working a lot, putting everything into this brand to create something that people can afford with a give-back component. That is really, really important for us because Nala came from a shelter.
Drew Neisser: It’s a perfect place for us to take a break and then we’re going to come back and we’re going to dive into that aspect of the business. Stay with us.
Drew Neisser: We’re back. You mentioned that you’ve partnered with a lot of brands. In fact, I wanted to mention you partnered with Google, Lyft, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, STAINMASTER, Fresh Step, Sony, Universal, cbdMD, Bissell, and many more. I’m curious—have you ever turned down a brand? Has there ever been a brand that you said, “No, this isn’t really right for Nala”?
Shannon Ellis: Yes. Yes, we have. We’ve turned down brands that we wouldn’t use ourselves or we wouldn’t gift to someone we love. And that’s just our guideline. Sometimes there’s a lot of pressure because, you know, the offer is more than what you would typically get but we have to think of Nala, we have to think of our community, and we have to make good choices.
Drew Neisser: I love hearing that. I think I read that—and this was a couple of years ago—Nala gets some more than $15,000 per post. Is that still true?
Pookie Varisiri: It’s true and is not always $15,000 per post. It has a range but the most we have gotten was the $15,000.
Drew Neisser: Got it. And how do you make sure that when you pick a partner—you mentioned some of the values—what are you really looking for from a partner to be a good partner for you?
Shannon Ellis: Are they aligned with our brand? What kind of social impact do they have? How do they operate? Brands like Fresh Step, they donate a bunch of litter so that’s very aligned with us. It’s easy to turn down a brand like rat poison. Easy. And it happened.
Drew Neisser: Really? Seriously? A rat poison approached you.
Shannon Ellis: That’s right. That was probably the most money offered for a single post ever and they didn’t even want the product in the photo. It was just of Nala with a caption, so we had to hard past that.
Pookie Varisiri: It was a hard pass, yeah.
Drew Neisser: Yeah, I can see why. But I want to point out that a lot of brands that we work with—we do a lot of work in the B2B world and a lot of the listeners are business to business—and they often don’t think about the value of purpose and how that permeates not just from employees and customers, but it also impacts partnerships. I think it’s so interesting that you look for like-minded companies to partner with. It’s a wonderful reminder of the importance of that.
Shannon Ellis: We learned early on, and we’re learning more as time goes on, that it’s the people and it’s the people behind the brand, too. We feel like when we are hired to do a sponsored ad, it’s not just a transaction, it’s a real relationship and we both should have the best interests of each other in mind when we promote.
Drew Neisser: It’s funny—as we’re recording this, there’s a group of folks here and as I mentioned in the opening, you’re the only cat with a CAA agent. Talk about that and what that must be like. You have an entourage.
Pookie Varisiri: I mean, we didn’t expect that at all, that it was going to happen. But then when they reached out to us, it was just a no brainer. We talked to each other before and we said that the only agent we would sign is someone that can bring more value.
Shannon Ellis: We’d been approached by other agencies and we passed. We had an internal meeting with our team—Pookie and I. We pretended to be a bigger team years ago and we always said “Nala team” but it was just us and Nala. We said the only agency we would ever sign would be CAA and we got that email and it went back to the people. It was referred by someone we met and that just validates the importance of the people in your relationships.
Drew Neisser: Amazing. And yes, it does come when we do business with people that we share values with and that we like. I’m watching Nala walk around the studio at this moment with her cute little blue bow and reminding us that this comes back to her. How is the agent with Nala? Does she know how to handle cats?
Pookie Varisiri: She loves cats. She adopted two black cats herself. And when we signed with her, she actually fostered two other cats after that.
Drew Neisser: All right. There you are. It’s just putting the, so to speak, money where her mouth is and following through. That’s awesome. All right. You mentioned earlier that Love Nala, the cat food, has a charitable component. Can you talk about that?
Pookie Varisiri: Since we started, so the company just launched a month ago, we have donated over 5,000 meals to Kitten Rescue. Kitten Rescue is actually the first rescue partner that Nala partnered with six years ago. They are in LA. For us, Kitten Rescue was the first one we picked and then, from now on…
Shannon Ellis: We’ll continue donating as we can. We’re a startup, so we still have a lot of work to do and we have big goals and big dreams and we feel like no cat should be hungry. No pet should be starving, so we’re working hard towards that. That’s our goal. That’s our mission. That’s the reason why we’re doing all this.
Nala Cat: Meow!
Drew Neisser: Yeah, that’s why we’re doing it. And you agree. That’s amazing timing, Nala. Five thousand meals in a very short period of time, that’s promising. How is the business going? Have you hit some any unexpected challenges with rolling out at a cat food?
Shannon Ellis: It’s going really, really good. I think it’s a challenge across the board having cat owners switch their cat’s diet and to trust the brand, but we have a head start because Nala’s community automatically trusts her. But like any consumable, it takes a little bit more brand awareness and building, so we’re getting there, but we’re happy!
Drew Neisser: Well, that’s great. We’re going to take a little break and get a little treat. We’ll be right back.
Drew Neisser: Ok, we’re back and we’re going to scratch below the surface a little bit in the area of social media. Clearly, everything that you’ve been able to build is around your success and Nala’s success on social media. Four million fans on Instagram. I’m curious—as you were building up that fan base, was there one moment that accelerated it? Was there one post that just went viral?
Pookie Varisiri: I think the first post that she hit the popular page was the moment that started everything.
Drew Neisser: So, there was a moment where suddenly Instagram added Nala to the popular page. Was there anything about that post that was special from any of the others?
Pookie Varisiri: It was just a really, really cute photo of her. Then after that, we had a few photos that people created a meme with, and then it just went around.
Drew Neisser: Right. The meme. I was going to ask you about the meme and I’m embarrassed that I haven’t seen it. How many memes have you seen now with Nala?
Pookie Varisiri: With that specific photo, people created, like, I don’t know—so many I can’t count.
Shannon Ellis: There’s one where she’s grooming her paw and she looks like she’s flexing, so “You can do it” went viral. She’s been inspiring since then. And her crocheted shark hat, people love that.
Drew Neisser: Of course! I mean, why wouldn’t a crocheted shark hat go viral? Okay, so you have a couple of moments where Instagram favors you, which is important. You just were doing what you were doing and suddenly they helped—talk about just good karma. Then the memes started to happen, and you were 3 million just a couple years ago, so it’s been a hockey stick of growth. When you were starting to become a celebrity, did brands reach out to you?
Pookie Varisiri: Brands reached out to us directly and the moment we realized that this could become something bigger than just social media is when people asked for Nala merchandise.
Drew Neisser: Nala merchandise.
Pookie Varisiri: Yeah. They wanted something that had Nala’s face on it, so that’s the first moment I was like, “Oh, okay. This is good.” I didn’t know people were going to like her that much.
Drew Neisser: Yeah. You were just doing what all of us do. For our dog, Louie, we have an Instagram account for him. Louie Neisser, just in case you’re wondering, and we’ve been waiting for him to be featured. He’s a French bulldog, for heaven’s sakes. But it hasn’t happened. For you guys, it did, which is amazing. I wanted to ask you—did you create some merchandise?
Pookie Varisiri: I remember the first thing I ordered was a T-shirt with her face. I put it online and 120 shirts sold out in like two days. At that time, it was amazing.
Drew Neisser: Wow. That was a pretty good sign that you had a business idea opportunity. After Instagram, what social channel did you go to next?
Pookie Varisiri: I started on Facebook. I started on YouTube. But at that time, it was me and her and we couldn’t do it all on every single social channel.
Drew Neisser: Yes, I understand. Now, you are on Twitter, I noticed you only have 26,000 followers on Twitter, only. Do you treat Twitter differently than you did any of your other channels?
Pookie Varisiri: I did, because back in the day I was posting on Facebook, Instagram, and I tried to post on YouTube here and there. I was ignoring Twitter for a while, but now, looking back, I feel like I should have been doing every single thing at the same time.
Drew Neisser: Well, it sounds like you didn’t need to. It sounds like you were able to be pretty successful without it. Now, I did notice that you won TikToker of the year this year, in fact. I’m curious, how long have you been on TikTok? Perhaps you could, because many of the listeners aren’t on TikTok, explain why you got on that channel and what it is and what you do there.
Shannon Ellis: Initially we were contacted by a TikTok partner and they said Nala would be great on TikTok. We were a little bit skeptical because the audience was younger, but after researching and diving deep, we realized that we needed to be on TikTok. We started an account and we’ve been on there now for almost a year. We were active for maybe three to four months and won TikToker of the year, so that was pretty surprising and really special.
Drew Neisser: Just for folks who don’t know, you’re creating videos, right? It’s all videos.
Shannon Ellis: Yeah, it’s all video content. Short clips. About 15 seconds is the sweet spot, with music.
Drew Neisser: 15 seconds. Music. And I saw a demographic chart on it recently and it’s like 42% are under 18 or 18-25. It’s a very young demographic.
Shannon Ellis: Yes. We toned down our captions. We make it a little bit more fun and a little bit more showy. Nala will show a little more like her car. The kids like that stuff, so it’s different content that matches specific platforms.
Drew Neisser: Do you do any sponsored content on TikTok yet?
Shannon Ellis: For TikTok.
Drew Neisser: For TikTok. I see. I see. Nala the cat is on TikTok. And just in case you’re listening and wondering where you find Nala, we will link to all of Nala’s social channels on Instagram. It’s @nala_cat. We will list that and also link to the cat food site.
Now, let’s see. I’m wondering—because Nala’s a pretty darn smart cat. As a catrepreneur, I wonder if you have any advice for brands on how to improve their presence.
Nala Cat: Meow!
Drew Neisser: Yes, Nala, talk to us. To improve their presence on social media, to be better at it. Do you have any advice and things that you think you’ve learned?
Shannon Ellis: Brands need to be more fun. Content is everything and if you’re not disrupting someone’s feed with something cute, fun, funny, engaging, you’ll get swiped right by. To be a little bit more creative is going to be very helpful, and also to engage. A lot of these brands won’t engage back with their community. I think Wendy’s does an amazing job on Twitter, inspirational to us. But yeah, I think they’re a good example of a brand that’s doing what’s right.
Drew Neisser: Yeah, they have a tremendous personality to work from. And obviously, look, you’re having a lot of fun being Nala. There’s no doubt about that. But you did mention engagement. How much time do you spend engaging with your fans? With Nala’s fans?
Pookie Varisiri: A lot. I think at least one to two hours a day. I check comments, I check DMs every day.
Drew Neisser: It’s amazing that Nala can type so well. I mean, with those fuzzy little paws, it must be a little hard for her to express her opinion.
Pookie Varisiri: She’s a very smart cat.
Shannon Ellis: A lot of delete button action
Drew Neisser: Yes, definitely a smart cat. All right, I want to go back to some of the charitable activities. This show is going to air right after Thanksgiving and I think a lot of families get together during Thanksgiving and think about giving back and opportunities. What would you like to share with them in terms of the world of cats and rescues and how they could help give back in your world?
Shannon Ellis: I think, you know, donating is a really big part. Pitching in, it’s all of our responsibility to help animals in need. Foster, if you can’t adopt. And education—if you learn something along the way, share it with your family and friends. Education has been a huge part of why we’re here today too, learning a lot, especially from our community. It goes both ways.
Drew Neisser: As I think about this conversation, I’m going to attempt to summarize, which is something that I tend to do on this show. There are several things that.
Nala Cat: Meow!
Drew Neisser: Yes, yes, Nala. Please tell. There are several things that I picked up on. One is you were very consistent with the words that you talked about Nala in terms of the brand and you could boil it down to just a few words. I challenge other brands to be able to do that, to understand the brand essence. Two, the purpose-driven nature of Nala. I mean, obviously, in your social presence you want to have fun, but there’s this whole other undercurrent of goodness.
As I recalled at the very beginning of this story, we love our pets and we’re crazy about our pets and in some cases, some people love their pets more than they love people. As I mentioned, my mom was one of those people. You’re in a wonderful place but getting back to brands…brands would be so lucky if people loved them and loved their customers the way that we all want to love our pets and so forth. That was incredibly convoluted, but we’ve got clarity, brand. We’ve got purpose.
In terms of social media, what we really heard is, you just went at it. There was a magical moment, something somebody recognized, and then you were able to take advantage of it. You’ve been very careful about who you partnered with and who you didn’t. No rat poison, please. I think you’ve been pretty really good at helping this brand and testing the waters. Is there anything that you’ve tried that didn’t work the way you had hoped it was?
Shannon Ellis: Good question. I think Nala knows the answer to this one.
Drew Neisser: She’s being a typical feline and not sharing her secrets at the moment, keeping them very close to the vest. Well, I want to thank you two, and of course, I want to thank Nala for being on the show. Yes, certainly our first cat guest and definitely the most famous, perhaps person that’s been on the show so far. Well, not person, but brand, maybe, and I think some other brands would argue with me there. Obviously, I need to wrap this thing up, so thank you both.
Pookie Varisiri: Thank you so much.
Shannon Ellis: Thank you for having us. It’s awesome.
Drew Neisser: And to all of you listening out there, you can go to the website and you will find links to Nala food and how and get involved and how to get a blue bow for your cat. And of course, until next time, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.