In order to explore best practices in pet brand building, we should start with a (very) short ‘situation analysis’ to identify a general weakness in the category. What is the single biggest pet brand marketing challenge – one that is somewhat unique to pet food?
Starting with product form and packaging, the business is rampant with similar language, claims and forms of storytelling. The distinctions are often narrow at best and in most cases offer very little differentiation for consumers. This means brand selection and preferences are left to outcomes of personal recommendations from friends and family, or content from credible experts like breeders, shelters and veterinarians. While these sources are important, brand-generated marketing should and can be a contributing tool to growth.
Here we summarize a formula to guide improved outcomes that includes both strategic and communications solutions. These directional concepts, executed in concert, can elevate your brand to stand out as a more relevant and resonant choice.
In a sea of similarity, a careful and strategic study of brands in your segment will yield clues for white space innovations in how your brand goes to market. The goal is radical differentiation. Your differentiation should be both remarkable and obvious to consumers. Look at everything from product to packaging to channel to communications for opportunities to zig where everyone else zags. If your plans appear to be a break with the convention-bound legacy rulebook and normal marketing behaviors in the category, you know you are onto something distinctive. When you blend in, you won’t stand out.
It is telling that so many brands expect consumers to accept their product and ingredient claims at face value. Consumer trust in assertions of performance (proffered by brands) has been in decline for more than a decade. Consumers are skeptical and wary. The truth can be hard to discern without credible verification and validation of brand promises. To earn trust, you need prioritize building your plans around a strategy to generate belief and trust in your brand. Deploying outside third-party expert voices can be an important move to validate your claims. Earned media can have a similar effect, assuming the coverage you’re getting is delivered by top-drawer, blue-chip media brands known for their journalism/reporting standards (read: coverage that can’t be bought). Influencers suffer from inherent credibility gaps because of their “paid” status as brand voices. Independent subject matter experts are viewed as more trustworthy.
Unleashing the Power of Emotion
The pet brand marketing business is rife with analytical, fact-based selling based on specsmanship around proteins and other virtue-signaling ingredients. Trouble is, people are not analytical decision-making machines. People do not resonate to complex messages that require them to burn mental calories. We are feeling creatures who think not the other way around. To resonate and matter to consumers, the communications litmus test is always heart-over-head. That insight is now scientifically confirmed in the latest neuroscience research. The sub-conscious side of our brain governs 90 percent of decisions and actions taken. Emotion is the driver of those decisions. It is how people feel about your brand that draws them in. Emotive communication is table stakes to brand marketing success.
The Hero of Your Brand Story Isn’t You
Every consumer wakes up every day believing they are the hero of their life story. Effective brand communication casts the pet parent as hero of the story every time – their concerns, passions and interests in a pet-centered relationship and lifestyle. Your pet food is an active expression of their love and care for their furry family member. Your brand’s role in this story is cast as guide, coach and expert on the path to a more fulfilling life for their pet. The center of your story must be the consumer. All too often brands make the company and technology the focus of the brand story. When this happens, you’re embedding the communication with a disconnect by competing with your user for the hero role. It makes your communication less relevant – and possibly, ignorable.
Conversation and Social Proof
We live in a different age. The era of one-way brand monologue and “talking at” the audience is over. It has been replaced with conversation, dialogue and interactive communication – which is the entire point of social channel strategy. Yet we find most often an incredible imbalance in brand social channels, with pet brands using social as a broadcast medium for self-promotion. It isn’t engaging or interesting and so engagement levels are low. If you consider what mission social media exists to serve, it is supposed to be a community environment for sharing experiences and stories generated by users. Their voices and their stories are far more credible and powerful than anything the brand conveys on its own. Build your social media strategy around inviting users to share and express their pet lifestyle stories and experiences. Make it a priority rather than an afterthought.
The hill to climb to reach belief, often inconveniently created by pet brands, is steep indeed. We ask pet parents to believe the tiny brown, extruded nugget contains all of these powerful, nutritious ingredients to promote and help ensure the health and wellbeing of pets. However, we’ve arrived at an attribute driven marketing era where your backstory and product creation disclosures can be a persuasive tool to help pet parents believe your claims. So much of what happens in product creation remains hidden from view. Open the door, take them behind the curtain; explain how and where you source ingredients, show them how your commitment to quality manifests. Video is perhaps your most powerful tool for this work because you can take them into places – your manufacturing facility – where they can’t otherwise go. If you are proud of your ingredient commitment then demonstrate it. It is a genuine gesture of honesty and integrity. How you tell it can be done with emotional delivery because it’s your beliefs and values writ large.
These six components comprise the core foundation of pet brand marketing that works with assurance of pet parent engagement and impact. Like anything, the devil is in the details. How these pieces are executed will have a lot to do with their effectiveness. Experienced, knowledgeable hands are required to bring your marketing to life and take risk out of the investment equation.
Robert Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Emergent can help pet brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity and deeper meaning in their pet parent relationships and brand communication.