Avoid marketing misfires and create opportunities
The pet care business is dynamic, growing and vibrant, while also highly competitive with more new entrants arriving every year. Pet care is also unique in its aligned requirement for better, more strategic and consumer-centric marketing solutions.
What other food category is there where the most popular product form, kibble, is identical in appearance brand to brand. This alone requires significant leaps of faith from buyers to believe the assertions made about the quality of food ingredients inside the nugget.
It is a highly-emotional category where pet parents strive to provide the best diet they can afford for their furry family members as an active expression of their love. Yet the predominant pet food storytelling mechanism is analytical – not emotional – and based largely on protein wars “specsmanship” around percentages of real meat in the food.
Sameness on the hunt for uniqueness
One trip through the aisles and the similarity in messaging trumpets from the shelf. Meat to carb ratios, nutrition superiority, ancestral diet, grain-free, wholesome grains – offering snapshots of beautiful whole chicken, salmon filets, steaks, fresh vegetables and fruits. Human grade food images, often reminiscent of stock food photography, suggest pets are enjoying the same dinner-table fare people consume.
The similarity in brand messaging and imagery creates a blur of confusion for pet parents, who must turn to recommendations from others to get through the gauntlet of like-sounding food claims and complicated label terminology.
At a Pet Food Forum convention, Emergent presented on marketing best practices. We created a chart showing random primary claims made at the shelf by 10 different pet brands on the left and a list of brand names on the right. We challenged the audience to match the message to the brand. In truth, they were all inter-changeable.
But more important, in every case a fundamental miscalculation was at work that embedded a disconnect in the communication.
With few exceptions, typical pet food storytelling casts the brand as the hero of the story rather than the pet parent and pet. Everyday people wake up believing they are the hero of their life story. When encountering messages that cast the brand as competing hero they continue on, still looking for an expert guide to help them solve the problems they face.
When the brand is presented as expert coach to the pet parent, dynamic changes and communication lines open up.
More often than not, pet brands focus on themselves. Understandable, given the enormous efforts to create a top quality, highly nutritious food, but inadvertently inoculating the marketing with a message that doesn’t allow the pet parent to see themselves and their profound pet relationship in the story.
The solution here is to put the pet parent at the center of strategic planning and work backwards from there. Insight to their lifestyle wants, aspirations, needs and the connection to their pet provides the grist for marketing and messaging that works.
Leap of faith?
If ever there were a product category where trust creation is paramount, pet food is it. There is significant marketing mileage to be had for brands that embrace and understand that today, people no longer accept at face value the assertions and claims made by pet brands.
People don’t trust companies – instead they trust other people.
This helps explain why year to year social media continues its upward trajectory as a key element in the marketing mix. Especially when it is respected as an independent forum for pet parents to share anecdotal stories of transformation and change for their pets.
- All too often social channels are viewed simply as another broadcast vehicle for self-promotion. The goal in pet brand marketing is to earn trust. This is where strategy lives, embracing the opportunities offered when the brand decides to be completely transparent, opening the door to the entire product creation process for people to see and experience.
When belief is an objective, then the voices and messages employed take on new and deeper meaning. Pet parent ambassadors and outside third-party experts like Veterinary physicians and breeders can be instrumental in helping ascend the credibility mountain. Videos with the journey to the farm and kitchens that are constructed around a documentary format (unscripted interviews) rather than ad-like, help elevate the story believably.
An often-overlooked aligned opportunity are the high standards pet brands create for food safety and ingredient quality. We often find these sacrosanct rules exist, but remain largely hidden away and not brought to life (in the context as consumer as hero) as another reason to believe.
Efficiency through integration
For the most part the pet food industry is populated with small and medium sized premium players amongst a smattering of big, legacy brands. Most cannot win the marketing battle on the basis of tonnage in paid media spending. Every dollar invested needs to work like 10, and this condition amplifies the importance of an integrated approach. Even big media budgets no longer guarantee victory (ad-like outreach is increasingly ignored).
The power and effectiveness of awareness building around the important “why” of heavy user re-purchasing, works optimally when all relevant channels are operating in concert from packaging and shelf promotion, to editorial media, to branded social channel posts and how user-generated content is curated and served. This reinforces why the messaging is mission critical.
When the messaging isn’t right, nothing works to greatest impact.
All too often we find complexity in pet brand messaging that runs squarely into a roadblock on the receiving end. Too many distinct brand messages competing for attention forces people to sort through too many claims. Humans will never tax their brains to find relevance, so they simply tune out and walk away. Clarity and simplicity are stronger.
The pet business also consists of thousands of independent retailers, alongside big box and grocery. Trade relationships are critical in this environment manifesting in share of retailer perceptions and resulting linear feet. Trade facing media presents an affordable opportunity to be a dominant voice and another venue where paid and earned can be integrated to maximum effect, especially around key periods such as Global and SuperZoo trade shows.
Earned media opportunities
Earned media is a unicorn non-paid channel, in that editorial sensibility is required to successfully leverage it. Ironically, when the brand casts itself as expert guide (focusing on the issues and concerns of pet care and strives to embrace transparent operation) earned media opportunities multiply. Why? Because it’s more relevant to the audience than self-promotional brand rhetoric.
Trying to leverage ad-like promotion and self-serving events, in a media channel based around what’s newsworthy, is a recipe for non-performance. That said, there’s never been a period in the pet business when news can be served more often, than at a time when virtually every media property out there has turned to lifestyle advice and guidance to enhance their own audience relevance. Just remember the story has to look, walk and talk like news.
The winners and losers in pet brand marketing will be driven by those who optimize their messaging for pet parent resonance, making them the hero of the brand story, while working to align company behaviors and operations with the consumer’s demand to do business with brands that embrace similar values and truths.
- The most valued brands will prevail because they recognize ‘trusted by’ pet parents must be earned daily, and that actions speak just as loudly as words.
Previously we’ve mentioned a complimentary messaging audit as a no-risk way to have a conversation, one that provides added value. We offer it again here. If you would like a fresh perspective on your current messaging approach, let us know.
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Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, the healthy living agency. Emergent provides integrated brand strategy, communications and insight solutions to national food, beverage, home and lifestyle companies. Emergent’s unique and proprietary transformation and growth focus helps organizations navigate, engage and leverage consumers’ desire for higher quality, healthier product or service experiences that mirror their desire for higher quality lifestyles. For more information, contact Bob@Emergent-Comm.com and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.