Images of cute cats and dogs are always welcomed distractions; entire blogs are dedicated to that well-known fact. But when it comes to selling products based on the adorableness and wonder of the animal world, those products have to resonate a little deeper to win over consumers’ dollars. A balance of emotional connection and useful and/or on-trend products can be difficult to master, but once done, it can be wildly successful. The effectiveness of that strategy is probably no better displayed than in a recent April Fools’ joke turned actual opportunity.

“Just before April Fools’ Day, American Eagle Outfitters created a line called American Beagle, and it was supposed to be an April Fools’ promotion,” says Helene Gordon, senior director of licensing and retail development for the ASPCA® (The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals®). “For every transaction made during that week up to April 1, we got $1.”

The charitable cause-shopping event was promoted as a pre-celebration for a line of pet clothes that American Eagle would “launch.” Once April 1 rolled around and the light prank was revealed, American Eagle had not only raised $100,000 for ASPCA, but also raised considerable interest in the faux fashion line. 

“We originally felt that April Fools’ Day was the perfect opportunity for us to engage with our consumers in a fun, lighthearted way, all while supporting ASPCA,” states Michael Leedy, chief marketing officer of American Eagle Outfitters, Inc. “Due to the tremendous positive response and excitement from our customers for the American Beagle Outfitters line, we decided to make a limited-edition collection for holiday 2014.” 

American Eagle learned what ASPCA already knew – pet lovers love quality pet products and they love supporting the protection of pets even more. Preventing animal cruelty has been the ASPCA’s focus since 1866, and every operation within the non-profit is grounded in that mission, including its licensing program.

“We’ve looked at how many households there are with pets in the country, and there are about 70 million and they spend over $50 billion on their pets,” Gordon says. “We’ve looked at those numbers and thought, ‘there’s a market for us there and that’s what we really wanted to tap into.’ We’ve looked for product not only for pets, like the leashes and dog beds – which are a priority of ours and backed by our expertise – but we also look at the people who own the pets and are passionate about our mission of rescuing animals.” 

Two Parts of the Same Mission 

Every product carrying the ASPCA’s name is focused on two things: raising awareness of the organization and raising funds. To do that, the organization partners with companies that know how to take the ASPCA’s assets and create products that achieve that perfect balance of emotion, usefulness and trend. 

“What we can provide to the licensee is our asset of cute cats and dogs – because who doesn’t like cute cats and dogs?” Gordon says. “But sometimes cute cats and dogs aren’t enough. You have to make it trendy while also getting our message across. We look for someone who understands our mission and is passionate about it. But we also look for creativity, expertise in product development, and we look to them to take our assets [cute dogs and cats] and use them in a really trendy way.” 

Longstanding relationships with partners such as Pet King, which has successfully sold ASPCA-branded pet toys for the past 10 years, most recently in Target, certainly help the ASPCA raise awareness while also raising funds for animals in need. Many of its newer relationships are doing this as well. 

For instance, Bradford Exchange, a big player in the gifting business, is launching a line of porcelain cat figurines stamped with ASPCA approval. Also, last fall, ASPCA teamed up with Ralph Lauren in conjunction with Adopt-a-Shelter-Dog Month. 

The fashion house worked with the ASPCA to create “The Dog Walk,” a short film featuring rescued dogs from the ASPCA and the designer’s fall 2013 accessories collection. During Adopt-a-Shelter-Dog Month, 10 percent of the purchase price of select accessories and dog apparel featured in the film was donated to the ASPCA. Also in the world of fashion, Vans Footwear collaborated with ASPCA to create a seven-piece collection featuring cat and dog prints and custom orange footbeds – the color of the ASPCA’s logo. The line, which launched globally in March, includes trucker hats, a backpack, a t-shirt and ID tags. 

The Vans x ASPCA collection is targeting a younger crowd, of which ASPCA wants to do more. Later this year, dollmaker Sophia’s Heritage will launch an ASPCA Shelter playset for their line of 18-inch collectible dolls that introduce children to pet adoption. ASPCA also has teamed up with Commonwealth Toy & Novelty for a line of adoptable plush dogs and cats that will be launched in the fourth quarter. 

“One big focus point for us is to get in front of kids,” according to Gordon. “No matter how young or old your brand is it’s important to keep going, so we want to get kids to care about animals and the ASPCA from an early age.” 

This means that the ASPCA must not only create products that resonate with kids, but also ensure those products clearly identify with the ASPCA image and message. 

“We want to be very transparent about our licensed products because it gives us an opportunity for messaging, as well,” Gordon says. “We very prominently display the logo, the fact that a portion of the purchase will be donated to us and our ‘thank you’ on the packaging. We want to say thanks to the consumer and let them know that their purchase helps animals in need. Also, we can use that packaging for messages to send people to the website to learn how to rescue animals, volunteer and become involved, which is really our goal.”