When you first meet Winston, you would not guess that this 6-year-old Corgi who loves to play fetch and eat his favorite treats is different from any other dog.
Aside from his playful demeanor and his handsome smile, Winston is actually a growing celebrity icon on Instagram, with a following of over 200K on Instagram.
“Honestly, I was quite perplexed,” Tina Kim, Winston’s owner, said to The Daily Beast while she was playing fetch with him in her Manhattan apartment. “It turned into a business that we totally did not anticipate. If I have to be honest, my husband and I are little bit overwhelmed just because social media is not our usual space.”
Kim is a 32-year-old health policy professional, and the creator of Winston the White Corgi on Instagram.
While most Pembroke Welsh Corgis come in five colors (red, red-headed tricolor, black-headed tricolor, sable, and fawn) with a white trim, Winston is an extremely rare type of Corgi who has an all-white coat.
Winston is just one of the many dogs who have become social media and pop culture icons, changing the lives of their owners, both personally and professionally.
Alex Taub, the co-founder of SocialRank, a social media analytics company and website, told the Daily Beast that the trend of creating a social media account for a pet started at the peak of Facebook’s rise in the early 2010s.
Owners would simply post pictures of their pets on their personal profiles. From there, outsiders who saw the pictures and wanted more content expressed their interest via likes, comments, and shares.
This in turn pushed owners to open a separate account for their pet, allocating a special space dedicated to this specific content. When Instagram rose to popularity, owners and dog-followers alike took to the social media platform that was made specifically for photography and videos.
“I feel like Instagram, at least your feed, is a different world than a lot of other things,” Taub said. “When you open up your Instagram account it’s usually pretty and flowery, and there’s a cute dog. People follow dogs because there’s an aspect of escape.”
Aside from Winston, other popular dogs on Instagram include Loki the Wolfdog, a husky, wolf, and malamute mix at 1.7 million followers, Jiffpom a Pomeranian with 8.1 million followers, and Tuna Melts My Heart, a Chihuahua and Dachshund mix at 1.9 million followers on Instagram.
Other popular Instagram dogs that are up and coming include Chloekardoggian with a following of 154K, Agador aka the PoochOfNYC with 121K followers, and Tibby the Corgi, who surpassed Winston with 230K followers.
“People just loved the way he looked,” Kim explained of Winston. “When we first got him in 2012 he was gray and white. Over time he turned lighter, and those who are familiar with Corgis were asking us why our Corgi was not the typical color.”
Although Winston’s rare white coat definitely helps him stand out from other Corgis (which is a genetic mutation not purposefully bred), other dogs on Instagram that are more famous than him had to rely on constant branding and content creation to be where they are now.
For example, Doug the Pug, the self-proclaimed “King of Pop Culture,” has over 10 million followers across all of his social media platforms, and even has his own book and line of merchandise.
“It’s changed everything,” Leslie Mosier, Doug’s owner, told The Daily Beast over the phone. “Because of Doug, the relationship between my fiancé and I developed, and we’ve grown a business together. We travel the world together and it has been amazing.”
Mosier got Doug from a reputable breeder in 2012, and has managed Doug’s presence as her 24/7 job. Because of Doug’s immense popularity he has made appearances with celebrities like Ed Sheeran, Katy Perry, and Justin Bieber.
Mosier attributes her background in marketing and graphic design as the reason why Doug, who is just a regular pug, was able to become such a celebrity.
“I had all of Doug’s social media pages looking really professional and branded,” Mosier said. “We kept capitalizing off of the growth and kept putting content out.”
Doug first went viral in March of 2015 when Mosier posted a video of him running around a park in Nashville. Doug had a pug balloon tied around his waist, and the song “Let Me Tell You About My Best Friend” played in the background.
When Mosier woke up the next day, the video had over 20 million views on Facebook, and Doug’s follower count had also risen.
“My husband Rob and I realized that people like the photos, but they really like the videos,” Mosier said. “So that weekend Rob and I brainstormed what other videos we could make. We made a video of Doug dressed as Harry Potter and called that Harry Pugger. We posted that video and we got another 20 million views.”
The couple continued to make parody videos of popular TV shows like The Walking Dead and Stranger Things with Doug as the star. After creating dozens of videos spoofing pop culture, Doug ironically became a pop culture sensation. Because of his immense following, Doug has also collaborated with huge brands such as Domino’s for a short video promotion, and Target in order to promote and sell his merchandise.
“I think it’s awesome because all of these big brands are starting to realize the impact influencers,” Mosier explained. “Now it’s to the point where it’s become such a normal thing within social media culture to have brands that prefer to have a post on Instagram rather than creating a commercial on TV because you’re reaching to so many more people.”
While Winston may not have as large of a following as Doug, Kim has approached, and has been approached, by companies such as PetSmart and Honest Kitchen to have Winston be a sponsor for them.
“We are very mindful and making sure we don’t put him in situations where he’s uncomfortable,” Kim explained, addressing criticism that she is exploiting her pet. “If we try something new and he doesn’t like it, we would stop. That’s where we have to be parents and dog owners first before we decide we’re going to through with an idea.”
An indication of any truly successful account is the presence of any sponsorships, or source of income from content. Companies enjoy advertising on animal accounts since there is little risk involved when the mascot of a company is an animal.
“Inherently a dog won’t go on a platform and be racist or sexist,” Taub explained. “You’re not going to have a Tiger Woods scenario or a melt-down, or any major problem because a dog poses in photos the owner puts them in.”
This branding can also extend into philanthropy work, which is something Julie Steines and her 3-pound therapy dog named Norbert have extensively built their platform on. Norbert the Dog’s brand and goal is to bring positivity to the internet, which—with a following of over 600K on Instagram—he can reasonably claim to have done successfully.
“He has changed my life in literally every way you could imagine,” Steines said proudly. “I met my husband because of Norbert, I now have a daughter because of him, and I now started my own company.”
Norbert is a Chihuahua, Cairn Terrier and Lhasa Apso mix. Steines adopted Norbert through PetFinder in 2009 when he was four months old. After one year of training with Steines, Norbert became a registered therapy dog.
Because of his cute face, small frame, and calm demeanor, Steines and her mother felt that he would be perfect for a children’s book. So in 2013 the duo teamed up and published Norbert: What Can Little Me Do? The book went on to win 9 book awards and became the first in a series that featured Norbert.
“My brother told me that everyone loved Norbert and that his book was so great that I should start a Facebook page for him,” Steines recounted. “I was like ‘OK sure!’ not thinking much about it and I did. I just started sharing photos of him, and it was wonderful to see that people thought he was cute.”
Steines put Norbert’s therapy dog license to use by having him volunteer at hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and other establishments to bring comfort and love to those who need it. He’s currently a volunteer at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
Like other Insta-famous dogs, Norbert has been sponsored by many companies. One of Norbert’s most successful collaborations involved Toys for Tots. For every plush toy of Norbert that was purchased, one was donated to the foundation, totaling at over 4,000 donations.
“If we collaborate with any brands or companies on anything we always want to make sure it’s a good fit for Norbert and aligns with what we do.” Steines said. “If there’s something we believe in that’s worth sharing, I think it’s great for us to do it. But it’s certainly not the focus of Norbert’s platform.”
Despite all of the notoriety and benefits that come with having an influential dog, owners are very well aware of the short life-span of their pet.
Most of these owners tend to take things on a “day-by-day” basis, and have admitted that while the future is uncertain, their dog will leave a lasting legacy. In Winston’s case, Kim would like to perhaps give him a closing tribute video when he passes on.
“We do think about it, but certainly not in a business way,” Kim said. “The future of Winston the White Corgi is unknown, but we would certainly want to think of ways to celebrate and extend his legacy.”
It is not entirely uncommon for owners of social media pets to create “legacy animals.” These animals, which are usually the same type of animal as the previous one, are brought onto the same social media account as the previous one in order to continue producing content for followers.
“People have asked if we’re going to get a legacy dog or a sibling for Winston after he passes,” Kim said. “We’re not thinking about it in that way. All we know is that we have a dedicated number of followers who love Winston and are invested in him.”
Taub explained that this business really is a “dog eat dog” world.
“There’s a lot animal accounts, so I do think it’s over-saturated already,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon. However, accounts that don’t create good content, or are spammy or annoying, will go away. Like most industries, the winners will continue to thrive.”
Despite the competition he is facing on social media, Winston does not seem to mind, or really care even. That does not mean to say that Winston has no drive or focus. In reality he does have his eyes on the prize, or rather the tennis ball Kim tosses around their apartment which he catches in his mouth with excellent timing and grace.