What "Nyan Cat" Says About the Future of Marketing (and the End of Civilization)

Last Updated Sep 21, 2011 8:52 AM EDT

If, like 13 million other people since April, you've wasted a few minutes staring in bafflement at "Nyan Cat," you already know something about the future of advertising. It's a bizarre world in which the marketing timeline runs backwards -- ads come first, and products follow only if the ads are successful.

Nyan Cat started life as an animated GIF file showing a cat with the body of a Pop Tart flying through space, leaving a rainbow behind it. It was created by "PRGuitarman." On April 5, YouTube user "saraj00n" uploaded the GIF with an irritating Japanese pop song playing in the background -- and more than 13 million people have played the video since:


Now Nyan Cat is a paid iPhone game, a web game and a T-shirt.

Put aside for a moment the fact that Nyan Cat is both irritating and stupid ("nyan" is the phonetic translation of the word in Japanese to describe a cat's "meow"). Nyan Cat is already viral, and already spawning offline media properties. How far could this brand go if "PRGuitarman" had a proper company behind him? There's no reason Nyan Cat cannot also be a stuffed toy, an animated TV series, a set of children's books or a line of clothing and accessories, bags and lunchboxes. (Note how the youngest girl in this "kids react" video almost bursts into tears when the cat goes away.)

On paper, this makes a lot more sense for Nyan Cat than it does for Sanrio's Hello Kitty. (At least Nyan Cat actually does something -- it flies through space! All Hello Kitty does is say "Hello.") Sanrio, in fact, will be playing very close attention to the progress of Nyan Cat. It's no secret that sales of Hello Kitty have shrunk in recent years as the company has failed to develop new lives and stories for the 27-year-old moggy.

The marketing world began searching in earnest for media-agnostic brands like Nyan Cat in the 1990s, after Emily the Strange became popular. Emily started life as a skateboard sticker. Now she's a full range of clothing and books, and has a small chain of stores. Even her cats have their own brands. (A Hallmark marketing executive once told me the company was hoping to find its own "Emily," who could champion a series of cards but also other products.)

And while Rovio's Angry Birds wasn't originally an ad per se -- unless you regard a free Android app download as an ad, which I do -- it's now a whole bunch of other products. And a cookbook.

Rebecca Black is another example of this phenom -- her music video "Friday" is best understood as a demo for the idea of a new teen singer named "Rebecca Black." No one can possibly have taken it seriously as a music product. The fact that it went on to sell tens of thousands in iTunes downloads is an added bonus, and a base for future, actual songs.

Lurking in the background of all this is Disney (DIS), which owns the mother of all media-agnostic brands, Mickey Mouse. The rodent still sells $5 billion in merchandise every year, despite not having made a film in decades. Mickey is basically a declining asset for Disney even though he is also its most recognizable one. He became a video game last year (Epic Mickey) but the company remains frozen in fear that any new adventure they give Mickey will soil the franchise.

So dismiss Nyan Cat at your peril. I can assure you that the feline's career will be studied as closely as any business school case study by brand managers everywhere.

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