Posts tagged "pet parents"

Pet brand engagement and social media

Pet Age magazine published our column on social media best practices

February 4th, 2021 Posted by brand advocacy, brand marketing, brand messaging, Brand preference, branded content, Content Marketing, Digital marketing, Emotional relevance, engagement, Pet food, Pet food marketing 0 comments on “Pet Age magazine published our column on social media best practices”

How to optimize social media strategy for pet brand marketing

Our new monthly column for Pet Age magazine tackles how to build consumer trust and engagement with one of the most powerful, credible channels of brand communication. You can read it here.

Learn how to maximize social channel outreach for impact and connection for your business...

Or, enter this link in your browser: https://bit.ly/SocialChannelStrategy

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.

Pet brand sameness works against brand engagement

How to Disrupt the Sea of Sameness

September 16th, 2020 Posted by brand marketing, brand messaging, Brand preference, brand strategy, branded content, CMO, consumer behavior, Consumer insight, Content Marketing, Emerging brands, Emotional relevance, engagement, Healthy Living, Higher Purpose, Pet food, Pet food marketing, Retail brand building, retail brand relevance 0 comments on “How to Disrupt the Sea of Sameness”

Similar brand strategies lead to undifferentiated communication

Nowhere do we find the unrelenting challenge of sameness operating in full relief more often than the pet food business. No matter what product or retail category you are in, the requirement for message uniqueness and differentiation has never been higher. Here’s how to disrupt the pattern of sameness that follows brands around like a virus.

The good news: The pet food industry is expanding, fueled in part by the dramatic growth of pet owning households, now forecasted to reach 71 million in the U.S. by the close of 2020. Despite economic climate challenges, runaway joblessness and the vagaries of changing shopping behaviors spawned by the pandemic, pet business trends continue on an upward trajectory. The pandemic has served as a catalyst for elevating the pet value proposition. We need our furry companions now more than ever.

The tougher news: Yet despite this picture of continued potential prosperity that floats all premium pet brand boats, the competitive players seem to be held captive in a repetitive messaging loop that confronts pet parents trying to navigate the store aisles. Everywhere their eyes scan, the sea of storytelling sameness stares back, defeating opportunities to connect on an emotional level.

  • What marketing medicine is required to get pet brands to stop and reconsider the path to engagement? To step beyond, above and outside their tendency to reinforce similar tropes about formulation integrity, while intractably married to the protein percentage wars, and accented by assertions of nutritional superiority or human grade ingredient quality.

Everyone believes they make the best food. Indeed, many brands now have upgraded the quality of their ingredient sourcing and formulation techniques, to offer truly nutritionally- dense solutions. But does the pet parent make decisions on the cold analysis of facts and figures? The answer is no they don’t.

Here’s what we know:

  • People run in the opposite direction, away from complicated brain taxing messaging that would require them to study and consider elaborate details of pet nutrition.
  • Human beings are feeling creatures who think and not thinking creatures who feel. It is heart- over-head, always.
  • Trust is an issue in pet food driven in part by the elaborate claims of human quality food ingredients magically encapsulated in a small brown nugget known as kibble. It looks industrial to start with.

The quite natural conclusion of most pet marketing plans is focusing inwardly on all the reasons why brand X pet food is better than brands Y or Z. The incredible efforts undertaken by companies to make a high-quality product IS the story, correct?

The challenging outcome of this thinking is a recipe for similar statements and claims that operate in conflict with the fundamental requirement for brand uniqueness and differentiation. Hence the sea of sameness.

How to break the cycle of sameness.

What does the pet parent care about? Their pet. The incredible emotional bond that sits between them is unshakeable and demonstrable and visceral and real. What is pet food? It is the instrument of expressing love and care for their pet’s wellbeing and healthy longevity. Why? Because they have connected the dots between the quality of what they themselves eat and their quality of life, a point of view that translates over in a nano-second to their beliefs about pet wellness.

We know it’s really tough to refocus marketing on the pet parent and their lifestyle aspirations ahead of what’s going on in the formulation, the manufacturing and the supply of high-quality food ingredients. Yet the enemy in here is the very sameness this encourages.

  • When you can walk through the store aisles and literally transfer packaging statements from one brand to the next one over, and it remains essentially valid, you know the playing field is going to be murky for the consumer. Maybe even confusing.

Breaking the cycle requires putting pet parents at the center of planning and working backwards from there. It is the focus on them, their lives, interests and relationship with their pet where all the alchemy of marketing magic happens.

Great marketing isn’t logical and linear. It is better when the plan embraces the idea that humans are emotional and often irrational, driven by whims and the perceived wisdom of crowds.

Love in a bowl.

That’s right, love. You aren’t selling pet food or de-boned chicken or 38% protein. You are selling the means to express the great love people have for their pet. Emotional communication occurs when storytelling and images and focus are on the pet parent ahead of the product. Holding up a mirror on what they believe: “I’m spending more on pet food because I care deeply about the health and wellbeing of my four-legged family member.”

So celebrate the bond, the moments of happiness, the relationship, the companionship, the emotional connections and experiences of a life lived alongside furry children. In this way the pet parent immediately becomes the hero of brand storytelling, and in doing so the communication achieves its goal of being wanted and engaging.

Talk about the stories of your customer’s pet lifestyle experiences, triumph over health challenges, and the miraculous emotional connections people have received during one of the most uncertain periods in human history. When your marketing voice is a reflection of real world experiences and the value pet parents experience with their pets, your brand becomes a partner with them on their journey to a more fulfilling life with their pet companion.

  • This is how brand relationships are formed and fed. All of a sudden it matters less to  communication effectiveness when protein percentages vary slightly brand to brand. You are no longer chained to specsmanship. You have successfully disrupted the sea of sameness.

Should this kind of thinking inspire you to consider fresh ideas and approaches, please use this link and let’s start a 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.

Pet parent bond drives pet food category growth

Pet Food Industry Resilience in Face of Pandemic and Change

July 8th, 2020 Posted by brand marketing, brand messaging, Brand preference, brand strategy, change, consumer behavior, Higher Purpose, Pet care, Pet food, Pet food marketing, Pet nutrition 0 comments on “Pet Food Industry Resilience in Face of Pandemic and Change”

Pets in catbird seat of household spending priority

By Robert Wheatley

While the earth-shaking intensity of COVID-19 and a global pandemic has upended lives, businesses and careers, it has elevated the importance of family pets as important companions in a rocky and uncertain life journey. Witness the stampede to shelters and pet rescue centers as people have swept up stray dogs and cats to join the family during stay-at-home orders.

Even now the pet industry is forecasted to grow by 4 to 7% this year despite lock downs and recessionary trends. Pet food is a strong, maybe recession-proof, business that is likely to retain its momentum for the very reason pets are meaningful players in the health and wellbeing, and possibly sanity, of their owners.

The marketing game plan for pet brands may shift towards the emotional dynamic of the human/animal bond more so than nutritional specsmanship, a fact-based common feature of brand communication during the last 10 years. Now more than ever, there is a concerted need for insight and understanding of how pet parent attitudes and needs are changing as a result of the pandemic.

History shows pet food to be a unique industry forever grounded in a growing, visceral enthusiasm for furry creatures who over time have moved from the barnyard to the backyard, to the living room and now are often found at night in the bedroom cozying up with their owners. The genesis story of this cultural evolution is fascinating and was set in motion by an unexpected world-class crisis event.

Who is making the pet food?

It was 2007 when the pet food world was turned on its head, disrupted and capsized with news of surging pet fatalities traced to tainted Melamine ingredients from China. Remarkably, it wasn’t the poisoned food or pet deaths that caused a complete industry shake-up. As the crisis unfolded, media working to trace the Melamine source determined that one company in Canada, Menu Foods, was manufacturing more than 100 different brands of pet food.

Instantly the tens of millions spent in brand advertising and equity building for some of the largest industry players was rendered inert. Brand reputations, constructed on years of claims about carefully formulated, created foods, were upended as the perceptions of food-making craftsmanship took the torpedo of outsourced – and apparently unsafe – production.

Almost immediately web sites sprang up around the “truth about pet food” as attention turned to deconstructing what exactly was inside the little brown nugget known as kibble. The largest and most popular foods were primarily grain-based products, a relatively inexpensive ingredient that flew against the marketing imagery of meat being the top nutritional anchor.

A new theme emerged as smaller boutique pet food brands making higher-quality pet foods suddenly got their day in the sun. Pet parents everywhere learned that dogs and cats are primarily carnivores, and their ancestral diets were closely linked to consumption of meat and fish proteins.

The definition of a high-quality pet food was restaged to a new recipe paradigm. The idea of ‘dogs-descended-from-wolves’ made intuitive sense to consumers as they resonated to the idea that pets aren’t grain (corn) eaters.

Dawn of the grain-free juggernaut

Sales of emerging premium brands like Wellness, Nature’s Variety, Merrick and Champion Petfoods’ Orijen brand shot up as pet parents began to upgrade the food they served to Fido. They started to pay closer attention to product labels, ingredient statements and sources. Orijen became the first brand to telegraph the percentage of meat protein in their formulation, under the story that more meat protein was indeed better and compatible with the nutritional needs and eating anatomy of dogs and cats.

The race was on to embrace grain-free as a category with marketing activity now devoted to focus on higher quality and so-called ‘human grade’ meat, poultry and fish ingredients inside the bag. Driving the grain-free momentum was a continued premiumization of the entire pet food industry. Pets were increasingly valued family members and food quality emerged as a symbol of investing in the health and wellness of four-legged, furry children – mirroring the healthy eating trend at the human dinner table.

As a business segment, grain-free pet foods emerged as the top volume growth producer at retail. Not lost on brands in every segment of the market, most companies joined the rush to create their versions of grain-free foods given the nomenclature had become a reference standard for healthier diet.

As evidence mounted that growth was to be had in the grain-free segment, Petco became the first big box retailer to fully re-set their stores, shifting prime in-store real estate to featuring the growing high quality brand players, while mass brands were pushed to the back of the shelving bus.

Investment followed to play in the quality end of the pool

The volume business ‘cheese’ was moving in pet food and naturally, investment followed as equity capital got involved among emerging brands such as the Catterton Partners acquisition of raw food category leader Nature’s Variety.

Large cap strategic players made their moves when grain-free superstar Blue Buffalo was snapped up by General Mills; JM Smucker bought Big Heart Brands gaining the Natural Balance business in the deal; and Nestlé landed Merrick Petcare to operate alongside their established Purina Petcare business. Testimony to the vast changes in consumer behavior and brand preference, Proctor & Gamble got out of the pet food business entirely, selling their limping Iams business to Mars Petcare, makers of Pedigree.

Super premium pet foods were once the exclusive province of independent pet retail. However, premiumization trends are now impacting the channel traditions as higher-quality brands show up in mass and grocery retail to meet the demand for better quality pet foods. There’s ample evidence that consumers are undeterred at higher average price points. General Mills made quick moves to use their clout in moving Blue Buffalo to supermarkets. While the Blue Buffalo business has suffered declines as independent retailers reacted negatively to the channel move, the grocery volume has more than offset the losses. Pet food has become a balance sheet darling for General Mills to tout during their quarterly reports to the Street.

Growth of pet food sales in e-commerce has been nothing short of phenomenal as people cut down on shopping trips and show interest in no-contact purchasing via online stores like Chewy and Amazon. Industry watchers anticipate there will be more consolidation as pet food continues to show its resilience in an otherwise shaky business and retail environment.

What lies ahead in pet

One key area of vulnerability in pet food is supply chain as the meat processing industry was felled by hyper-spreading of the virus in employee-packed plants. Stability in the sourcing of protein ingredients will be vital to industry health in the coming months.

On another front, in July 2018 the industry was upset by a report from the FDA that implicated grain- free foods as a potential contributor to Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM), a potentially fatal heart disease in dogs associated with low Taurine intake, an important amino acid. The FDA felt persuaded to list brands that were under review in their research, and the media firestorm around it created a wave of consumer and veterinary concerns about safety and which foods could be served with confidence.

The industry responded first by working collaboratively with the FDA on their investigation, while also creating new “wholesome or ancient grain” versions of their foods for pet parents who wanted the option. More recently, peer-reviewed research from third-party sources has been published that concludes the onset of DCM conditions is not diet related but mostly hereditary.

While many brands have experienced real setbacks in their grain-free business, it is expected the new information on DCM, as it works its way to consumers and retailers, will help restore confidence and close the chapter on safety concerns.

Marveling at the human/animal bond

With pets front and center, playing an important role in family life while people spend more time at home, it will be interesting to observe if pet brands make the emotional relationship a centerpiece of their marketing efforts. More insight research is needed to understand the nuances of this significant pet / pet parent relationship and how it has changed during the pandemic.

Alvarez & Marsal, along with partners Emergent Healthy Living brand marketing firm, Brand Experience Group  (BXG) insight research company, and Starcount social media listening agency, are approaching legacy and emerging pet brands with an insight proposal.

The pandemic research project combines quantitative and qualitative methodologies to discover the changes delivered by COVID 19 to pet parent attitudes, concerns and purchase behaviors. It is the intent of the research to reveal a new understanding of where the pet food business should navigate over the coming months and the next few years.

For more information on the project, contact Wes Arens at Alvarez & Marsal, warens@alvarezandmarsal.com or Mike Bambrick at BXG, mbambrick@brandexperience-group.com.

About the author: Robert Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Emergent helps CPG, retail and lifestyle brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and brand communication. For more details on Emergent’s pet care experience and credentials, click here to view or download an overview.

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.

Woman feeding dog

What’s Next for Pet Food?

November 15th, 2016 Posted by Pet care, Pet food 0 comments on “What’s Next for Pet Food?”

The inevitable pursuit of lifestyle integration

Can we all agree that premium pet food is one of the strongest business stories in packaged food growth – it’s been a consistent revenue engine over the last 10 years.

A consequence of continued growth and expansion this year is a 52 percent increase in the number of brands competing in the U.S. pet specialty retail channel, now at a shelf-busting 599 combatants, according to industry research from GFK.

This led to a whopping 2,880 new products launched in the past year competing for share of wallet, up 12 percent over the previous season. During the last five years dollar sales in the natural category have grown from $6.2 billion to $7.9 billion. There’s lots of marketing action, as well as subsequent noise in the pet food game.

The fuel steering this expansion is a humanization movement that awards pets full-fledged family member status. Pet food follows this trend almost lockstep with diet formula premiumization leaning into higher quality, better ingredient options – the similarity to what’s now holding court in the human food world is striking.

Case in point: the protein-forward, popular grain-free segment is up 20.2 percent, and now enjoys a 37 percent share of the entire natural category – delivering $3 billion in annual sales. The biggest single driver in this story today is kibble laced with freeze-dried raw bits now at $143 million in sales and gaining – a sort of trial entry pathway to ultra-premium raw frozen diets.

Yet, a stroll through the aisles in pet food stores reveals a remarkable level of resemblance and sameness in how brands present themselves, touting their ingredient strategies and more specifically data on protein delivery. Ironically, all of this rational, fact-based selling occurs in a product category powered by emotional cues not analytical.

What’s next?

Is this business accelerated solely by extensions of product form? Is it just a human-grade ingredient play? Are we simply trading up diets from formulations at $3.00 a pound to something approaching $10 or $11?

Price increases per pound are up 40 percent for pet food since 2011, and up 67 percent in the treat business, according to GFK. So it may come as no surprise that private label and value priced brands in the segment have been outpacing premium brand growth over the last four years.

Ingredient cost and price issues aside, while the category as a whole continues its upward trajectory, the next evolution in pet food marketing may still be in the wings. And itself may represent another crossover from the human food world to pet.

Wellness Lifestyle Integration

Pets moved from the barnyard to the backyard to inside the house to the bedroom in relatively short order as people increasingly treat their pets like kids. Emotional bonds and companionship are reliable, tangible anchors for pet owner benefit – in an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world.

The emotional grist is already in place.

There’s been a significant and transformative cultural shift in the human food world as consumers connect the dots between the quality of what they consume and the quality of their lives – this expectation has migrated to pet wellbeing.

Healthy is now driving food retail growth, but it’s vital to note “health” has been culturally redefined in the process. What was once addition by subtraction, meaning better for you was essentially a food science exercise designed to remove calories, sodium, fats and sugars, has morphed. Now, in its place is addition by addition.

Healthier is the integration of fresh, less processed, local, real food, ethically-sourced and made – an elevated quality story summed up as, “I want higher quality food experiences to go along with my higher quality lifestyle.”

Can pet ownership and relationship be an integral part of a healthy lifestyle? And thus does this companion relationship become part of enhancing the quality of life going both directions – for pet and pet parent?

We have seen numerous studies over the last five years documenting a relationship between pet ownership and health benefits for people. Just the act of petting your dog or cat alone is shown to lower heart rates and decrease stress. So a virtuous ecosystem might exist here as pet and pat parent in effect take care of each other, providing emotional and physical benefits that are reciprocal.

This brings a whole new lens to pet ownership benefits and suggests a higher calling for the connection that goes beyond the tail wag or purr. What’s the call to action for pet food brands?

Answer: become an enabler, facilitator, coach and guide on this journey to health and wellbeing for pets and pet parents alike.

This approach offers salience and relevance, and a treasure trove of creative opportunity for pet brands to differentiate and stand out in a sea of brown kibble uniformity.

True lifestyle marketing may be an anomaly in pet food now, but the signs point to a real need for disruption and uniqueness in a category rife with messaging and marketing that – pound for pound is nearly identical between brands (nod to wolf ancestry theme).

Editor’s note: Emergent CEO Bob Wheatley will be presenting at the 2017 Petfood Forum convention in Kansas City, next April 4 and 5. His topic will be “Activating the New Psychology of Pet Food Marketing: Millennials lead the pack in pet parent shopping behaviors.”

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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.

Time to Humanize Pet Food Marketing

May 6th, 2015 Posted by Insight, Pet care, Pet food, Retail brand building, retail brand relevance 0 comments on “Time to Humanize Pet Food Marketing”

Pet Parent and Pets

Ever since 2007 when the pet food industry was upended by the revelation that one Canadian company was manufacturing more than 100 brands of pet diets, the entire market has morphed northward in a nutritional race to the top – along the way amplifying ingredient strategies and high quality whole food recipes.

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