Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Connect With Consumers: Iconic Brands Think Beyond Cans, Kibble

By Robert Wheatley//March 1, 2023//

Connect With Consumers: Iconic Brands Think Beyond Cans, Kibble

By: Robert Wheatley//March 1, 2023//

Listen to this article

More than 90 percent of all brands (pet included) arrive in the marketplace without any true deeper meaning embedded in them. It happens because 99 times out of 100, the brand leadership team errantly believes they’re in the product creation business.

In fact, the separator between most brands and those that are truly iconic isn’t the outcome of a formula innovation – rather, it’s a deeply compelling belief system expressed through their brand.

Through gut feeling, instinct and prescient wisdom, extraordinary brands connect themselves to its fan-base community through tendrils of emotion. This defines the difference between a product that no one is truly invested in and one that authentically, magnetically attracts customers by the millions.

Yet, we find many in the pet food industry enamored and focused on recipes and nutritional bona fides instead of vision, values and belief systems.


The Chasm Between Good and Great

Why do some pet brands resonate deeply with us while others — with essentially the same features and benefits — don’t penetrate our sphere let alone spark our imagination? What do visions and values have to do with selling pet food?

Since people have changed, their expectations from brands have changed and how they evaluate brands have changed, it’s essential to consider pet brand ideologies and belief systems.

What turns good brands great – and drives most purchases – are belief systems that reflect your consumers’ values. This is the path to earn their loyalty as an integral part of your community.

Consider these examples separating the good from great: A respectable cause organization and a movement like Civil Rights. A talk show host and a powerhouse like Oprah Winfrey. Your average HP computer and an Apple. Any running shoe brand and Nike. A rock brand and the Rolling Stones. Another pet food brand and your pet food brand. Exceptional companies, personalities, movements, ideologies and civic communities enshrine their brands with greater meaning which then instinctively transcends everything else around them.

People want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Literally every human is on a relentless search for deeper meaning. Because of that, consumers now care about what your pet brand stands for more than the product itself. Our quest as marketers then is to better understand and define this search for meaning.


Two Iconic Examples

Starbucks has achieved remarkable consumer loyalty in the beverage category with comparatively little advertising. Why? Most might theorize that things like great products, great experience, great locations and great employee training tip the balance. Certainly, those are factors in the success of many companies. However, some brands with great product innovation, perfect packaging, even breakthrough advertising fail to sustain the visceral marketplace traction that standouts like Starbucks secure. How so?

In the beginning Starbucks was an extraordinary coffee bean store in Seattle’s Pike Place Market during an era when coffee was freeze-dried, or people were “waking up with Folgers in their cup.” Entering the first Starbucks store was a pass to a startling aromatic immersion learning experience on bean-ology, coffee growing regions, arabica versus robusta beans, roasting philosophy and tasting notes not unlike a fine wine story. A coffee-experience Disneyland. Bean religion governed employee training, brand communications and store experience during their meteoric store expansion.

In my own field, how did my former employer Ogilvy & Mather rise above the thousands of other ad agencies to become a global powerhouse? Was it better creative talent? Stronger art directors? Wise media wizards? Deeper bench of strategists? Certainly, great talent helps, but no, it was none of those things. David Ogilvy saw the creative communications world through a different lens. He turned Ogilvy into a teaching hospital for brand stewards, codifying a belief system about creating brand influence and attention unlike any other firm competing with it. His books became bibles of communication guidance systems complete with origin stories, myths, beliefs and values.

Becoming an iconic brand all begins with a larger vision of what you’re on earth to accomplish and how that draws consumers towards you. This is the most powerful ingredient driving success, and keeping customers, period. Why does it work? Having an articulated belief system imbues your brand with differentiated, tangible deeper meaning. Research confirms that brands engaging consumers emotionally can command prices as much as 20 percent or higher than competitors and sell at far greater volumes.


Tapping Into Pet Ownership Emotion

Latching onto the emotional tether that exists between pet parent and pet is a rich storytelling environment. As dogs and cats moved from the barnyard to the backyard to the bedroom their roles changed from assets to valued members of the family. This integration of pets into family life is unprecedented in modern times. So much so we know people will live longer, happier lives as a result of the bond and relationship with their four-legged furry children.

The rituals of pet parenting, including lap and play time, walks, filling the bowl and general companionship form the grist for storytelling that is way more powerful than the deboned meat in the bag.


Making That First Impression

When the lead message is a bowl with good-looking food in it, you are repeating a trope aligned with virtually every brand in the business. And while this convention may feel comfortable, it isn’t differentiating or capable of inspiring the kind of emotional resonance which compels people to join your community as advocates and ambassadors.

The celebration of family pet life is a deep, emotionally-dense trove of messaging that holds a mirror up to what your customers care about – allowing them to see themselves in the context of your brand. They want to hear stories of pet adventures, pet personality quirks, behavior accomplishments, health victories and the wellness advances others can experience personally through their pets.

All of this gets more interesting when the brand has a foundation of higher purpose and values that informs every decision made about why you exist, what you offer and how those beliefs manifest in the products you make.


The Recipe for Genuine Engagement

When you introduce real people with real pets experiencing real challenges and needs, your brand becomes relate-able. When you focus on the experiences people have, they can find and recognize themselves in your brand communication. Suddenly, they are the heroes of your stories rather than the brand usurping that role through self-promotion.

When you bring these shared people/pet experiences to life through storytelling: You’re able to articulate your true brand purpose – your why; How you deliver on that promise; What business you are in as a result of your mission focus – not food-making but pet-engaged lifestyle inspiration; and properly packaged and presented your brand narrative then separates and elevates your business from others.

When Apple unveiled its iconic Think Different campaign, did it focus on the machines they made? No. In fact none of the people featured in those ads had ever used an Apple product. It celebrated vision, accomplishment and inspiration about changing the world around us – a belief system shared by millions of aspirational consumers.

That’s separating good from great.

That’s higher purpose.

What’s yours?



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.