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Petfluencers: The Berliners making dough from their dogs

Gwendolyn the guinea pig has an Instagram following to make a Berlin poser weep. We delve into the competitive world of famous pets, chasing fame, freebies and fortune.

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Valerio and Annabell, owned by Nina Geschl, are a pair of British Shorthair cats who have 31,700 followers on Instagram. Photo: @valerio__annabell

Valerio Karamello and Annabell Minou don’t need a filter to work the ‘gram. With their distinctive colouring and piercing eyes, these preened Tempelhof residents have developed a social media following that most aspiring Berlin influencers could only dream of – and they don’t even have their own phones. Valerio and Annabell, who have 31,700 followers on Instagram (@valerio__annabell), are a pair of British Shorthair cats.

The two kitties can’t take all the credit for their fame. Their owner, Nina Geschl, set up the account in October 2019 with the intention of sharing photos of her treasured “teddy bears”. “When I was younger I was a crazy cat girl; now I’m a crazy cat woman,” the 35-year-old says. While corona played some part in the pets’ surge to fame – “During the first lockdown, I got 500 followers a week” – the proud owner thinks their popularity has more to do with appearance. “Valerio is very unique because of his fur,” she says, describing his lilac-cream, tabby-cat hues. Annabell’s fur might be less striking, but her eyes have an unusual amber tint, giving her an all-natural allure that cries out for Insta pics.

Lots of pet accounts are rising at the moment because people know that you can get famous and get rich.

Valerio and Annabell have joined the lofty world of “petfluencers” – a portmanteau favoured by the marketing firms and account holders that form this elite online scene. But Tempelhof ’s two most revered cats still have a way to go before reaching the top. Currently, social media’s most eminent pet star is Jiff Pom, a Chicago-based peanut butter-coloured Pomeranian that shot to fame after being featured in Katy Perry’s 2014 music video “Dark Horse’’. Jiff Pom currently boasts 10.2 million followers on Instagram alone and has an estimated net worth of over $1 million. America may dominate the scene, but Germany is steadily catching up. “The cool thing about the petfluencer market in Germany is that there is not one big star,” says André Karkalis, whose marketing agency has become a go-to partner for many of the top names in the country. Plenty of German accounts have more than 100,000 Instagram followers, he proudly states.

Chasing dollars

When animals reach such lofty heights, their owners can look forward to more than just a barrage of likes. “Lots of pet accounts are rising at the moment because people know that you can get famous and get rich,” Geschl muses, pointing to the example of Nala Cat, a Siamese-tabby mix and internet sensation with 4.3 million Instagram followers. “Her owner gets around $40,000 per feed post,” swoons the up-and-coming Tempelhof-based petfluencer. “With 10,000 followers you can earn €100 per post. Normally it goes up: €200 for 20,000, €300 for 30,000.” Karkalis has some tips on how to get there. There are three key ingredients to running a successful pet account on social media, he explains: “First, owners post great pet content every day. Second, they show themselves as people in the story and give insights into their daily lives. Third, they spend hours each day with community management – as the followers are key to success, it’s very important to answer every question and as many direct messages as possible.”

He established his marketing company 16 years ago but only entered the world of petfluencers in 2018 with a campaign for Furbo, a camera that monitors dogs at home while also dispensing treats. Spotting a lucrative market, Karkalis went on to dedicate an entire branch of his agency to managing pet accounts. This specialist agency, called TONY (after his dog), is a free-to-join service connecting pet accounts with potential clients for campaigns. There is no minimum follower requirement for joining, but Karkalis recommends “a four-digit following, since companies always have an eye on the reach”.

Perks and recreation

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Austria-based couple Nadine and Philip Appé have never made money from their seven guinea pigs, despite having 133,000 followers on their Instagram account, The Piggy Potatoes. Photo: @thepiggypotatoes

For those who prefer not to monetise their four-legged friends, the social media economy offers plenty of non-cash incentives. Austria-based couple Nadine and Philip Appé have never made money from their seven guinea pigs, despite having 133,000 followers on their Instagram account, The Piggy Potatoes (@thepiggypotatoes). It was created “just for fun” back in 2016.

“It started with five followers. We never had the intention to make it a serious part of our life,” Philip says. “It just happened somehow. It’s important to say that we’ve never taken money for anything, we never wanted to earn money. We just love to share the cute creatures we have. When we start to take money it becomes a job and that’s not what we want.”

Since both are juggling their pets’ stardom with their own studies – Philip is studying medicine and Nadine business – their hours spent on content creation are quite flexible, and limited mainly to Fridays and Saturdays. Philip confesses that his wife plays the “creative director” role. “She deals with the videos, photos and the community.” Posts take two to three hours to prepare. “We do it for fun on the couch sometimes.”

Although the couple is not making a profit, their famed rodents – who are between one and five years old, Sansa being the oldest and Winky the youngest – do live the high life of celebrity Insta pets, benefiting from free beds, food and other guinea pig-related products. “We’re in such a guinea pig bubble where everyone has their own shop, so for friends or companies we like, we do collaborations,” Philip says. “We just take the product they want to be advertised and photograph our guinea pigs with it, then tag and credit them.” And just like parents with their human children, Philip and Nadine claim to love each guinea pig equally. “But on Instagram, Gwendolyn is the favourite,” Philip says, pointing to the success of her “wheeking” videos, one of which got over 10 million views. (For those who have no idea what “wheeking” is, it’s a high-pitched squeaking noise made by guinea pigs to get attention – and Gwendolyn is an Olympic-level “wheeker”.)

We’re in such a guinea pig bubble where everyone has their own shop, so we do collaborations.

Frido, a Brittany-spaniel-mix rescue puppy based in Berlin, has a fraction of the followers boasted by The Piggy Potatoes, but even he enjoys certain benefits. The dog “works for his own food”, according to owner Carlotta Reckordt, who saves on kibble as a result. “I get his food because I have a long-term collaboration with a supplier,” she explains. “If I need a new dog bed or something, I can call this nice brand I work with. They send the product and I take pictures to send to them. They then use them on their social media.”

The 28-year-old Wahlberlinerin makes it all sound so easy, but her background in marketing has helped @herr.frido to win over 12,600 followers. Originally from Osnabrueck, Reckordt moved to Prenzlauer Berg with her boyfriend three years ago after they completed their studies. Reckordt manages marketing for a meditation podcast and her boyfriend works in TV. Almost immediately after receiving Frido from a rescue home in Alicante, Spain, photography enthusiast Reckordt set up a dedicated Instagram account. “During my studies we had some photography classes,” she recalls. “I had a nice camera and I wanted to experiment with this more” – particularly after her ultra-cute puppy arrived. “I didn’t want to annoy my friends with hundreds of dog photos so I set up the account.”

Clicks for a cause

Image for Petfluencers: The Berliners making dough from their dogs

Frido, a Brittany-spaniel-mix rescue puppy based in Berlin, “works for his own food”, according to owner Carlotta Reckordt. Photo: James Huertas

Besides free dog food, Reckordt counts creative fulfilment and positive responses to her work among the rewards of running a high-profile pet account. “It’s always nice to get good feedback, whether that’s compliments or likes. It makes you feel good, but I also don’t sweat it if one photo doesn’t get too many likes,” she says. But it’s not all for her: the marketing whiz-turned-petfluencer also uses her online clout for the greater good. “I work closely with rescue charities to organise fundraising projects,” she adds.

In 2019, Reckordt and her friend Jessi collected unused dog paraphernalia such as beds, bowls and collars for a charity boot sale that raised €2200 for Hands4Paws, a rescue organisation for hunting dogs based in Essen. “It was so funny,” Reckordt remembers. “We had everything sent to my grandmother’s house because she had the space. Her whole house was full of second-hand dog items, there were boxes everywhere!” The two then set up a pop-up shop and asked allied pet accounts to promote it for them. “We didn’t set prices; people could pay or donate as much as they wanted.” This year, Reckordt is working with the charity on a line of leashes and harnesses that will be modelled by Frido, with the profits again going to hunting dogs in need.

Berlin-based influencer Nadine Rank was also inspired to look for deeper meaning in her pet’s online popularity – particularly after that pet had died. Rank was already a full-blown influencer in her own right, using Instagram as a “kind of diary” to great success (@nadine.berlincity has 20,900 Instagram followers), when her cat Cäsar – a frequent star on her feed – passed away in June 2020. She then launched a partnership with Tierschutz Berlin, Europe’s largest animal shelter. Armed with her camera, Rank goes down there to create content for “the animals that need special attention and support”, she says. “I try to help the pets to get a home.” Rank couples these ‘adopt me’-style posts with Q&A Instagram story sessions, providing information about how Berliners can apply to adopt and aptly prepare for life with a newfound furry friend.

A dog’s life

As with any celebrity lifestyle, public outreach can be a voluntary side hustle on top of a busy calendar of schmoozing and awards ceremonies. While Reckordt does enjoy her charity work with Frido, a major pull to the life of a petfluencer is the chance to attend events and rub shoulders with other members of the scene.

In fact, it was through a petfluencer event that she met Jessi, her friend and fundraising partner, who runs the dog account @a_girl_and_a_vizsla. “We are both ambassadors for DOGANDLIVING,” Reckordt says. The brand offers high-end dog accessories, from doggy bath robes to poop-bag dispensers. The two promoters get invited to a big get-together with the “branch family” once or twice a year, in addition to dog conventions on the side. “Last year in August, we were invited to a really cool event in Augsburg for the whole weekend. They had a hotel room booked and one of those classic influencer bags ready for when we came in,” Reckordt beams. Prior to the pandemic, one of the most well-known events was the German Petfluencer Awards, organised by Karkalis’s agency TONY. When it last took place, in 2019, it was hosted in Kleinheubach, Bavaria, by Josera, a German pet food company. Throughout the day, influencers and their pets mingled while judges chose the winner of three categories: petfluencer of the year, micro-petfluencer of the year and blog of the year.

Once I got a shitstorm because of a video. I’d fed them something which isn’t the best for cats. I got really nasty messages, saying I’m an asshole and a bad cat mum.

The petfluencer world might sound like fun and games – but like any form of social media, it has its nasty side. Besides receiving multiple requests and offers to buy Frido, Reckordt has also received backlash from commenters online who are less enamoured of her pup’s pampered life. In fact, she says she has blocked a couple of accounts because of nasty messages, including criticism that her hunting dog doesn’t belong in the city. “But in the end, they don’t know me and they don’t know my everyday life with Frido,” she says, adding – in her defence – that she regularly takes her pet out of the city by car to practise hunting and retrieving activities. 

Geschl, cat mum to the heart-stoppingly photogenic Valerio and Annabell, may have hordes of doting admirers, but she has also had to deal with anger online. “Once I got a shitstorm because of a video,” she says. “I’d fed them something which isn’t the best for cats.” The offending meal was a brand of cat food that critics pointed out was not suitable for Valerio and Annabell. Geschl was not keen to disclose the details but conceded that she’d made a mistake. “I got really nasty messages, saying I’m an asshole and a bad cat mum, that my cats would be happier in a shelter.” One so-called “catfluencer”, who Geschl is quick to point out had fewer followers than her, wrote to other accounts saying she was “evil” and calling on users to block her. “She did that with other cat influencers too. Lots of envy on Instagram, everyone wants to be a star”.