It’s not just what’s in the bag or can…
By Bob Wheatley
Have you noticed changes at the pet store lately? More brands are occupying in-store real estate than ever before. The impact of ongoing trends in pet care driven by humanization of the pet relationship, followed closely with premiumization of the pet food business generally, have changed the competitive paradigm for brands and businesses in this space.
Natural and organic brands have benefited from these shifts. And now the retail environment is getting somewhat cluttered with ingredient quality-driven brands telling similar stories about their nutritional bona fides and commitment to real-food or “human grade” pet diets.
To be sure the premiumization trend was kicked into high gear partly because of the scrutiny and focus across the pet care industry on ingredient definitions and food labeling. In the last five years a unique class of pet media has sprouted to examine and rate diets, while shedding more light on the meaning of pet food label terms like salmon meal (concentrated protein source). The big beneficiaries in all this are – pets– which now enjoy healthier options and improvements in the quality of proteins offered – usually the most expensive ingredient in any pet diet. Diet quality is closely linked to pet health and wellness.
The path to growth
What remains undeniably true for any brand looking to grow is this environment: human beings are not analytical, fact-driven decision making machines. Rather people are emotional, “expectation creation” machines. Consumers make decisions on the basis of their feelings about one brand vs. another and their sense of confidence and trust in its benefits.
Knowing this, there are three key ingredients to help optimize growth opportunities in crowded pet food category.
This is job one – and rises in importance in pet care especially due to long- standing controversies about pet food ingredients dating back to the Menu Foods recall of 2007 which “shredded” many big brand value propositions. Literature searches and use of digital listening tools in social channels reveal there are ongoing conversations about perceived truths or transparency from one brand to the next. These discussions often center on nutrition, safety, ingredients and manufacturing processes.
There’s more work to do here than just asserting trustworthiness. It’s a strategic issue that needs to be embedded into company cultures and baked into go-to-market strategies. While it may appear the Trust ‘answer’ is an analytical one related to nutrition and ingredient profiles, those attributes have become greens fees and can’t be the sole driver of brand differentiation. The answer is much more complex.
This can be one of the toughest challenges to tackle because it often requires some stretching; risk-taking. Dialing uniqueness up by definition means making some bets on who and what the brand is about and what it should become. Said another way it takes a certain level of company bravery to zig when everyone else zags.
Pet care now is rife with sameness between brands. To be sure logos are different, so are web sites and packaging, but in many respects, the core messages and approaches bear striking similarity from brand to brand. This is why it’s so important to drive for differentiation in more than one area.
Different can be composed from a suite of opportunities including:
- Brand purpose and positioning
- Product story
- Product innovation
- Product form
- Cause alignments
Working to elevate brand meaning, mission and story can help separate your business from others. Product formula can be a tough one to lean on heavily because it is relatively easy these days for others to replicate the recipe. Imitation may be a form of flattery but for brand success uniqueness is a stronger platform from which to build.
If ever there were a product category where promises, assertions and claims should be validated by the voices of experts and influencers, this is it. Not far away from trust, influence is a key strategic piece in closing the loop around the claims a brand will make on its nutritional quality, mission, values, beliefs, and drive for innovation.
There is a veritable eco-system of influence in pet care ranging from credentialed nutrition and veterinary figureheads to mainstream and citizen journalists and the trickle down impact of social conversations about trustworthy behaviors and transparency.
All of this coalesces with the experiences of current users who comprise the most effective base of influence there is – word-of-mouth generated by real pet parents who have authentic stories of improvement and transformation to share about the health and well-being of their pets.
Holistic, three-dimensional approach
These ideas may seem like disparate elements, but all are inter-related. To address them effectively they should be evaluated in context with all aspects of the business – from formulations and nutrition research to marketing and packaging communication – to interactions with rep networks, distributors and retailers. All matter.
Without a doubt, key to success in the growth equation is the talent involved in running the business. Change is taking place here too. An excellent example is Merrick Pet Care, a brand on the move and being shepherded by a first-class management team steeped in top grade CPG business experience. This will be an interesting growth story in pet care, as evidenced by their recent acquisition of the Castor & Pollux brand and their newly-announced cause alliance with PAWS® Chicago.
Taking the road to brand distinction
Differentiating pet care brands in today’s crowded environment may be a challenge – and may require strategic or operational shifts, or even, transformation. So where do you start to determine the right path? I’ve seen it over and over – epiphany often falls out of a deep dive on pet parent insight research on their needs, behaviors and aspirations.
What do you think?