Posts in Differentiation

Brand activism is on the rise

Trend Alert: Rapid Rise of Brand Activism

November 30th, 2020 Posted by Brand Activism, brand advocacy, brand marketing, brand messaging, Brand preference, brand strategy, CMO, Consumer insight, Differentiation, Emerging brands, engagement, food retail strategy, Healthy lifestyle, Higher Purpose, Marketing Strategy, Navigation, storytelling 0 comments on “Trend Alert: Rapid Rise of Brand Activism”

Is your brand’s higher purpose dialed in?

“Food is now so much more than food: It’s this representation of the self. We’ve managed to use it as a signifier for so many virtues, whether that’s obvious ones like health or indulgence, but also ancestry and connection to kin and family, or the fact that you’re just a unique person out in the world.” – Benjamin Lorr, The Secret Life of Groceries, Grocery Business interview.

To successfully build and grow a base of enthusiastic brand fans these days consumer relevance is everything. In the absence of a high-quality consumer connection and a valued relationship, food, beverage and lifestyle brands can be cast out of the economic Garden of Eden, forced to wander in the wilderness of commodities interchangeably bought on price.

Now a new challenge is emerging to creating relevance that must be weighed carefully if brands are to retain the attention and support of a growing an influential new base of users. Here’s what’s coming fast and hard:

The Socialization of Brands

Six years ago we tracked a cultural shift indicating consumers were leaning heavily into deeper, meaning, values and mission in assessing the merits of their preferred brands on the path to purchase. This condition is rapidly evolving and is accelerated farther and faster as a result of Pandemic induced upheaval in mindset and evolving personal priorities.

COVID-19 presents an out-of-control social and economic environment. It is enhanced by the absence of effective readily available solutions and clear public policy guidance from previously respected sources of social organization, government and educational institutions. Into this societal vacuum comes a new form of behavior we call brand activism.

  • “COVID-19 has forced communities to grapple with how individual behavior impacts collective health and social wellness, and it has elevated the mandate that companies demonstrate how their products, practices and systems positively impact the community and support the greater good.” – Hartman Group, Value in the Time of COVID 19” whitepaper

Brands are now expected to be social actors.

“My Wallet is My Vote”

Imagine the checkout aisle at your supermarket or drug store transforming into a form of voting booth. The wallet and purchase performs the role of ballot-enhanced virtue signaling as consumers cast a vote on their brand candidate’s values through the purchases they make.

  • Purchases are largely symbolic gestures now, intended to telegraph what people want others to know about their priorities and identity. That said, the nature of this beast is evolving further with emergence of pressing issues that are forming on the horizon of our food system, how it operates and what it represents beyond abundance, indulgence and health.

The cultural shift taking place is a pervasive belief among people, Gen Z especially, that they are unique and empowered to help create change. Rather than relying on the performance of others or institutions, people look at their own relationships, networks and voices as opportunities to activate their advocacy on a larger canvas.

Alignment reaches a new level

Awhile back people discovered alignment between the quality of what they ingest and the quality of their lives. The impact of this revelation was seismic. Enter the fresh food revolution, the move to perimeter shopping at grocery, the emergence of preference for locally-sourced foods, and the decline of heavily processed packaged products.

Healthy food was no longer defined as addition by subtraction (or food science at work) to remove fat, sugar, salt and calories in order to achieve a better-for-you claim. In its place came higher quality real fresh food solutions that impacted the course of emerging food brands from large cap CPG line extensions to entrepreneurial, new food brands with an ethos and higher quality, small batch formulation.

Now another revolution is in the works as alignment evolves yet again.

The relationship of food to climate change threat

The alignment emerging now is awareness of a relationship between our current food system and the over-production of greenhouse gases that sit at the foundation of the climate change crisis. The increased pace of super storms, wildfires, droughts followed by floods, topsoil erosion, and the threats to shorelines advanced by higher water levels, serves as evidence the earth has its problems.

Now comes the realization that meat and industrial agricultural practices are the largest contributor to greenhouse gas creation on earth. The revelation: food production enabled by increased consumption by an ever-growing global population could endanger the planet. The food system specifically meat production and large-scale industrial agriculture, is producing greenhouse gas at a level exceeding the contribution of all forms of global transportation combined. Current GHG levels outstrip any prevailing public policy or naturally occurring solution that would lower it sufficiently to address rising earth temperatures and their impact.

  • As this knowledge becomes more widespread it will usher in a new era of calculation on favorable brand attributes, specifically carbon footprint. Advantage will go to brands that provide evidence of their sourcing and production processes that work to mitigate contributions to greenhouse gas creation.

Many plant-based brands have already stepped into this arena by invoking climate change in their stories. Some brands have already begun including carbon footprint claims on their product packaging or menus (Panera, Chipotle and Flora plant butter).

Fast on the move is another generation of new product concepts that employ the latest techniques in fermentation and microbe use designed to step away from the agricultural production chain entirely and thus advancing a new cadre of claims and benefits associated with climate change.

Brand activism and brand voice

We have long lauded those incredibly advanced brand ethos players like Yeti who have injected new-found lifestyle associations and deeper meaning into their brand personas. These companies take consumer lifestyle very seriously and operate as mirrors of people who, in Yeti’s case, are devoted to outdoor adventure – or at least aspire to do so.

Now a new battlefield emerges for brands that take the socialization of food and food production to a new level. These informed brands work to answer both the coming tide of planet-level food scarcity and the impact of our global agricultural system on greenhouse gas creation.

Thus we envision a new phalanx of emerging brands that weigh in on such important topics, working to associate themselves with the activist mindset of consumers wishing to vote their preferences via the food purchases they make.

Supporting regenerative agriculture practices will be one area we expect to rise in importance in the year ahead. The potential exists now to help support a new view of farming practices that can help turn farmland into the world’s largest carbon sink. These kinds of stories and the behavioral moves by brands to embrace this new thinking will mark a new era and opportunity in brand communication.

  • As consumers increasingly view purchases as a flag of their beliefs, it is vital that brand communication strategy advances to lead this conversation and facilitate the dialogue in social channels.

It’s coming faster due to the cultural shift now underway that aligns food production with climate change, making activism a part of the purchase decision. Failure to recognize this coming shift could put brand relevance at risk and hand competitive advantage to those who are already moving to answer this form of brand activism.

  • If further guidance on this evolving path is of interest to optimize your brand’s higher purpose-related messaging and story creation, we can help you determine the right path and create the right story.

Use this link to start a fresh conversation around questions you have about this emerging change-in-motion.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to the Emerging Trends Report.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact Bob@Emergent-Comm.com and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

New concept in pet brand building: kitchens

Will Pet Brands Stop Resisting Differentiation?

October 28th, 2020 Posted by Brand preference, brand strategy, change, Differentiation, engagement, Pet care, Pet food, Pet food marketing, shopper behavior, storytelling, Transparency 0 comments on “Will Pet Brands Stop Resisting Differentiation?”

How to punch above your weight and win

When shopping the aisles of a pet food store you’ve likely noticed an amazing array of new brand players on one hand, and on the other difficulty distinguishing anything truly unique between the options. Blurry at best as the protein percentage wars rage everywhere around you.

Pet care is a robust and growing business that works to float all brand boats. For now at least.

  • More pet-owning households than ever
  • More adoptions from rescue centers
  • More puppies and kittens at home
  • More mouths to feed

Even in the midst of a pandemic and economic recession the growth record is notably positive.

That said what happens when you reach a competitive tipping point as the number of brands multiplies (supply) while vying for a piece of the current volume and dollar pie (demand)? Right there, strategic best practices highly recommend nurturing true brand differentiation in the eyes of the consumer. When differences are marginal though, then what?

Read on…

This challenge gets to the heart of pet care brand conditions, a business personified by its Low Differentiation and High Durability traits among category participants. This is a healthy business ripe for disruption – when the right moves are made.

Understanding pet brand category behaviors

How is it that so many pet brands are holding firm right now?

The size of the pie is expanding. Brands that are similar to each other while exhibiting staying power are all playing by familiar rules – at least until an innovator comes along and changes the playbook.

A landscape of comparable brands with parallel nutritional claims and ingredient stories, arguing for advantage in the margins, is a living example of:

  • A study in brand incrementalism
  • Marginally better quality to the winners in each segment
  • Pricing that stays in the segment frame, forcing choice on other more subjective cues
  • A curious tit-for-tat marketplace where brands monitor and react quickly to copy competitor moves (ancient grains anyone?)
  • Where staying in the competition is more important than distinguishing the brand as a unique star player

Premium kibble is kibble for the most part, although every brand understandably claims to be nutritionally superior to their equivalent price-point neighbor. That said, the language used to convey better or best bears remarkable sameness brand to brand.

Looking for marketplace advantage

When you work hard to create and earn high buyer value, the end result makes competition increasingly irrelevant. Where the pet business is generally a ground game of less differentiated brands, the sweet spot of disrupting category conventions is secured by moving from lower to higher differentiation.

Achieving greater uniqueness can happen when focused sharply on a marketplace buyer segment – a specific type of customer, where the brand strives to be hyper relevant and meaningful to a lifestyle cohort. Take for instance the consumer pursuing a health and wellness lifestyle, where the importance placed on the quality of what you eat is directly related to their perceived quality of life.

Inevitably, this consumer will transfer that same viewpoint to their pet food choices. While one could say wellness is the province of raw food brands, even there, the word raw has been democratized throughout the category in slightly de-tuned versions such as freeze-dried toppers, chunks and kibble inclusions.

Channel as a disruptive idea

Just Food For Dogs (JFFD) based in Irvine, CA has found a way to re-think the path to market.

Their model involves free-standing retail kitchens that make fresh pet food on premise, a concept optimized for higher income zip codes where the cost per pound is less important to the perceived nutritional upgrade in a freshly-prepared diet. The opportunities for customization to specific pet needs is remarkable and embedded in this concept.

Company President Carey Tischler explained this is the beginning of a national expansion: “our kitchens are an incredibly effective means of showing, not just telling, pet parents how we are different – and how fresh, whole-food can change their pets’ lives. With nine open-to-the-public kitchens serving pet parents today, and several more kitchens under consideration for 2021, our national expansion is already well underway,” he said.

Human food ingredients re-purposed for pet food recipes

Their Chicago kitchen entry now under construction sits cheek-to-jowl with the city’s largest, most progressive and well-known pet rescue The PAWS Foundation – a virtual mini-industry in moving abandoned or stray pets to new homes. Ahem, that’s new food-seeking pet owners. Across the street is Petco, a retailer that is stocking a shelf-stable packaged version of Just Foods For Dogs pet food.

Is JFFD a retail pet food kitchen company with an aligned packaged business to serve consumers where no retail kitchen exists? Or a packaged pet foods company with a unique retail kitchen extension that serves as marketplace theater and demonstration of their fresh food ethos?

Shelf stable versions of fresh recipes

“We view our business as a direct-to-consumer ecosystem,” Tischler reports, “and manage it as such – with each channel supported by our Certified Nutrition Consultants. The kitchens are a critical part of the business model, but they work in concert with our pantries (store-in-store concept) and online offering. We have a lot of evidence these channels are synergistic and effectively support each other, driving brand awareness and offering convenience to pet parents.”

Freshly made pet foods from the kitchen

In response to pandemic impacts, Tischler says the company is leaning into curb-side pickup at their kitchen locations or home delivery through third-party providers.

What’s interesting about this approach is its relevance to a like-minded consumer who sees higher food quality as verified by the fresh ingredients and preparation techniques used to preserve nutritional density. The very same food preferences they apply to themselves can now be delivered to their pet in a Chipotle-like store setting. At the very least, it’s a disruptive idea.

  • Of note, we think Just Food For Dogs has a significant opportunity to weigh in on transparency, ingredient sourcing and food standards to further enhance their nutritional credibility story, although we haven’t seen that manifest as yet. Transparency is a unique point of competitive advantage in an industry where it’s largely a missed opportunity.

Just Food For Dogs is a marvelous study in innovation around a category governed mostly by conventional extruded solutions.

In mainstream retail FreshPet presents an interesting twist on packaged products and certainly deserves the growth they’ve experienced. However, we believe even more can be done to separate and elevate brands above the forest of sameness. Differentiation operates to attract a cohort of engaged, enthusiastic fans who have a deeper, emotional connection to the brand that is stronger, frankly, than a reason to buy focused on protein percentages.

Zig when everyone else zags

In the last seven months the pandemic has served as the most important personal priority- shifting mechanism of the last 30 years, advancing the importance of health and wellness to sheer survival. Taking care of your immune system is now a clarion example of how consumers reassert some control over their lives in an uncontrollable societal and environmental setting.

We’ve characterized this as Health is the New Wealth. Yet this development has not translated fully to pet food.

Pet lifestyle is a real thing. We believe there are ample numbers of households that operate daily around the pet-to-parent dynamic. A consumer insight-savvy brand could embrace a lifestyle platform that rises over the ubiquitous discussion of human-grade proteins and fresh vegetables ingredient trope. It would be a ‘zig’ to emerge above the endless chatter about real meat, chicken or fish and tag the emotional equation of what higher quality pet food is intended to do: The quality of the food provided is the ultimate expression of love for furry family members.

Addressing and leveraging consumer lifestyle affords a much deeper conversation on topics more relevant and resonant to the pet food buyer than food science and dietary claims. It’s also inherently an emotional construct, key to engagement and message impact.

Pandemic and purpose-based brand building

COVID-19 has operated to refocus people on their beliefs, purpose and societal values that contribute tangibly to the greater good. These considerations are influencing brand preference and purchase. Up to this point organic ingredients haven’t been widely employed outside of a handful of pet brands. The word sustainability continues in some respects as a form of check-the-box afterthought invoked like a Whole30 label certification.

Organic is really about farming methods more friendly to the environment and less damaging to our climate. Sustainability, likewise, can be viewed optically as regenerative agriculture practices that if widely adopted could help turn farmland into the world’s largest carbon sink.

These ideas can be repackaged as a move to address carbon footprint, playing a decisive role in managing the existential threat of climate change on our future wellbeing. Could this become an embedded mission for a pet food brand? We think so. Pet food is a very big user of feedlot meat and agricultural ingredients that in a larger sense of their production are among the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas on the planet.

  • Carbon footprint is starting to show up now on select human food labels. We believe this is the start of a major trend. It will be interesting to see how it translates in pet food marketing.

Whether it’s channel and business model differentiation, a switch to lifestyle marketing and communication, or embracing a mission around climate change, each of these ideas represents a potential new tool in the standard go-to-market toolbox.  Concepts that were popularized in recent years by premiumization of the pet food business and the dawn of popular grain-free formulation claims.

The latter became a herd-like move. We observed most premium brands quickly shifting to emphasize the ancestral diet blueprint.

  • Yet this becomes the very reason to consider a strategic move towards greater differentiation not less. If supporting high buyer value – moving past common ingredient stories – makes your competition less relevant wouldn’t you seriously consider it?

We know this is hard. It feels risky. It sounds like bucking category norms. Will the consumer react well to it? Of note, consumer interest is a testable proposition. In what is mostly a sea of sameness, clear observable brand distinction can be a highly prized and leverageable asset.

If exploring new thinking and fresh ideas sounds like a good conversation to have, we welcome the opportunity to think with you. Use this link to open what could be a very interesting and rewarding conversation.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to the Emerging Trends Report.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact Bob@Emergent-Comm.com and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

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