3 values tell more about US pet owners than demographics

Pet food marketers can appeal to consumers’ values and may achieve more success than conventional targeting of economic, ethnic or age groups.

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David Allison
Tim Wall

Demographics serve as a blunt tool for understanding pet food buyers. What’s worse, when pet food marketers try to classify their customers by age, ethnicity or other demographic variables, stereotyping can result, David Allison, founder of the Valuegraphics Project, said during his presentation on May 2 at Petfood Forum in Kansas City, Missouri. Instead, looking for common values among pet owners can reveal more meaningful ways to appeal to dog, cat and other pet food purchasers.

“We all sit in rooms and talk about the demographics of our target audience,” Allison said. “People we're trying to influence, engage, motivate and inspire. And that's fine. They've been doing it for centuries, innocently. But what happens when we do that is that we confirm for each other that the proper way to understand other people is to look at them and say they're male or female, they're black, they're white, they're rich, they're poor, they're younger, they're old, they're gay, they're straight. What we're doing is putting people into stereotype groups. And then we go and make decisions based on those stereotypes. If you found out your target audience is 84% of women, what are you going to do with that? Make everything pink?”

While the audience laughed at this, he pointed out that we see exactly that in children’s toys and clothing. Similar demographic-based decisions can mislead pet food companies as they attempt to appeal to their audiences. Instead, pet food professionals can use values Allison identified as common to pet owners throughout the United States, regardless of any demographic definitions.

“For people who are pet food shoppers in the United States, these are really powerful values and they make these people very different in the way they're going to make their decisions than everybody else,” Allison said.

3 values that set US pet food buyers apart from the general population

Personal responsibility

Pet owners tend to hold personal responsibility values. They like doing research to fulfill that need to take responsibility for everything in their lives, he said. Before buying a can of pet food they will research it and check out competitors.

“They want to make sure that they understand what's in the food, and they're doing this with a long view,” he said. “These are long term thinkers and researchers. They are research junkies who are have an eye on the future.”


Personal responsibility ties into trustworthiness values, he said. The trustworthiness that pet food shoppers search for is anything that helps them be a problem solver. Functional ingredients appeal to these pet owners. Pet owners may appreciate a degree of complexity as they look for functional ingredients that meet specific needs for their pets, just as they may walk into a drugstore to look for medications and supplements for their own health needs.

However, Allison noted that the pet food industry tends to put research information on the back of the website.

“It's hard to find,” he said. “It's there if you go digging, but I don't see anybody making social media posts about their polyphenols. And these folks want to know that stuff. They want to go to the dinner parties with their friends and go oh you're serving them.”

He suggested using consumer education programs that would grant certifications related to pet nutrition.

“They want to be as smart as you are when it comes to pet nutrition,” Allison said. “So don't hide it on the back page. It's a superpower for you. Put it up on the front page. Make it as big and bold as you possibly can.”


Pet owners value experiences, those experiences are ultimately rewards for them. Novel pet food ingredients appeal to this value.

Make a big deal out of novel ingredients, he said. Frame the ingredients as treating pets to an experience. Loyalty programs can also become part of meeting pet owners desire for experiences. Beyond giving customers material items or even discounts, loyalty programs can provide experiences, such as more things that they can do with their pets or with other pet owners. Personalizing pet foods with a dog or cat’s image on the packaging is one example of this. Giving loyal customers a direct line to the company or providing a concierge service while traveling are other examples.

Personal responsibility, trustworthiness and experiences provide more common ground than pet owners’ demographics. Pet food marketers can appeal to these three values and may achieve more success than conventional targeting of economic or age groups.

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