6 insights for marketing pet food to millennials

Pet food companies need to appeal to pet owners’ emotions in order to differentiate their pet food products and gain new consumers.

photo by Zinkevych, Bigstock.com
photo by Zinkevych, Bigstock.com

Millennials – the largest group of consumers and leaders in pet ownership – are not surprisingly leaders when it comes to spending on their pets. However, millennial shoppers are known to be serial avoiders of anything that looks like traditional marketing, which is why pet food companies need to appeal to emotion in order to differentiate themselves and gain and retain customers, according to Bob Wheatley, founder and CEO, Emergent, speaking on April 4 at Petfood Forum 2017.

Understanding how the brain works

There are two brain systems at work: system one, or effortless, and system two, effortful, Wheatley said. System two is considered the learning, cognizant, aware part of our conscious, and it can process up to 40 bits of information per second. System one, our subconscious, has the capacity to process up to 11 million bits of information per second. It is this system, which generates impressions and feelings and acts without deliberate analysis, that has a powerful influence on consumers’ purchase decisions when it comes to choosing a food for their pet.

“It is not conscious thought that informs the decisions we make,” Wheatley said.

Wheatley said that most pet food brands now are communicating analytical information on store shelves, which is not consistent with the way system one operates and the way consumers choose pet food. He gave six insights that should be considered by pet food marketers who want to appeal to millennial pet owners and keep them as loyal customers.  

1. Exposure effect

People assign superiority and affection to things that we are already familiar with.

“It’s not the facts and features, but the familiarity that matters,” Wheatley told the audience. “Familiarity breeds affection.”

He said multi-channel, holistic communication strategies that are always on are vital, along with sticky, memorable phrases and ideas.

2. Power of testimonials

People are drawn to prefer products that other people like and endorse, and our depth of affection grows with a product’s perceived popularity.

“So if ever there was a rational or reason for making investments in social community building, this is it,” he said.

3. Prominence of emotion

Perhaps most importantly, pet food marketers need to understand that system one responds to emotion because it uses emotion. So, for example, he said that a surprising, personal pet parent story is far more persuasive than providing statistics.

“Predominately in the pet products business, we’ve seen a reliance on analytical, fact-based information over and over and over again – and yet, that’s not motivating,” said Wheatley. “You need to promise to satisfy one of the most powerful motivations for buying quality pet food – the expression of love for your pet.”

Pet food companies should be marketing to millennials what it feels like to provide a pet with a higher-quality diet, not the technical aspects of the food.  

4. Reciprocity and reward

“We are hard wired to respond in the face of reciprocity,” Wheatley said. “Unselfish acts create obligation to respond in kind.”

So, Wheatley advised companies that want pet parents to purchase their food to do something unselfish ahead of just marketing their food to consumers and asking them to buy it. Additionally, he said that system one prefers immediate and assured rewards; this means that emotional and social rewards, such as a consumer feeling like they are making their pet happier by providing superior nutrition, are more motivating to a pet parent than saving a few dollars on their pet food purchase.

5. Actions are more powerful and salient than words

What you do has more of an impact than what you say, Wheatley told the audience, suggesting that pet food companies provide experiences to consumers that allow them to interact with the brand and see what the company is about.

“We can influence action and behavior, and in our world, this can be related to changes in channel, packaging, pricing and off-shelf display that can change the act in our favor,” he said.

6. Artistic expression

System one responds well to artistic expression, according to Wheatley, who cited a quote from a former colleague, “You cannot bore your customer into buying your product.” He advised pet food marketers to consider how they use words, being clever, amusing and interesting, in order to attract potential customers. 

Petfood Forum 2018

Petfood Forum 2017 was held April 3-5 in Kansas City, Missouri, USA. Petfood Forum 2018 will take place at the Kansas City Convention Center in Kansas City on April 23-25, 2018.

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