All the feels: How to differentiate your pet food brand

In marketing pet foods, it pays to remember that consumers, as humans, are emotional beings, and they’re particularly emotional about their pets.

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The pet food and treats market is a crowded space, with a dizzying array of brands standing on store shelves or displayed on e-commerce platforms. Pet owners often profess to feeling overwhelmed by the choices.

In fact, all consumers are facing a “cognitive load,” with dozens of thoughts, demands and priorities inundating their brains and competing for attention and action, according to Samantha Scantlebury, brand strategy director for Signal Theory, a brand development, marketing and design firm.

How can pet food and treat brands break through without adding to the scrum? “It’s time to make advertising human again,” reads the first statement on Signal Theory’s website. During a Petfood Industry webinar on September 13, 2022, Scantlebury used that theme as the starting point for her part in explaining “Pet food branding: How to stand out in a crowded market.”

Consumers are humans, meaning emotional beings

Scantlebury and Signal Theory are not the first or only ones to recommend focusing on the human aspects of marketing to consumers. Bob Wheatley, founder and CEO of Emergent, which bills itself as the “healthy living agency,” has long insisted that humans are emotional and feeling beings before thinking ones; that’s just how are brains are wired. Therefore, a longtime emphasis in pet food marketing on ingredients, nutrition and the science behind them has often missed the boat, he maintains.

“The latest research in consumer attitude and behavior shows that people remain emotional creatures who make decisions led by their feelings more than facts,” Wheatley wrote in March 2020. “The correlation between pet ownership and improved owner health and well-being could fuel the continued growth of high-quality pet foods. … However, the pet food industry is still stuck in analytical rather than lifestyle marketing practices.”

(You can hear more marketing and branding insights from Wheatley on the Trending: Pet Food podcast, hosted and created by Lindsay Beaton, editor of Petfood Industry magazine.)

Tying marketing concepts to consumer drivers

In the webinar, Scantlebury made the point that many pet food and treat brands make references to humanization in their marketing, and pets are definitely a priority for owners, but they still need to make fast decisions when dealing with cognitive overload and the dozens of things they need to think about in a day. They make those decisions based on the emotional connections they have (or don’t have) with a brand.

So, talking about your product’s attributes and functional benefits will only go so far. Building a narrative is key, and to do so, you need to focus on what she calls the 4C’s in your market: culture, category, customer and company. A thorough examination of all relative to your product and brand will help highlight opportunities to resonate and be different—i.e., stand out. In addition, she stressed, consistency across the “customer journey” (all elements of your marketing strategy and campaign) is crucial.

To illustrate some of Scantlebury’s points, Billy Frey, director of marketing for Champion Petfoods and co-presenter of the webinar, walked through a case study his company undertook to differentiate its own two brands, Orijen and Acana, from one another to drive demand for each. After conducting a quantitative assessment of the brands’ dollar volumes and interaction with each other (plus others on the market), he and his team looked at another set of four marketing concepts. In their case, it was the traditional 4P’s: product, price, promotion and place.

That analysis helped them home in on their channel strategies (part of place) and each brand’s segmentation, marketing structure and marketing mix (part of promotion). An element of the segmentation process included looking at psychographics: consumers’ drivers, stated as well as latent, for their buying decisions.

Drivers of consumer behavior tie in to, again, their emotions and how those impact their purchases. The key takeaway: Your target consumers are more than just numbers and demographics; they’re humans, driven to select and buy products and brands based on their emotional connections. And of course, when it comes to their fur (or scale or feather) babies, the emotions run especially high.




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