A key challenge to pet brand marketing effectiveness is how to build tangible uniqueness in a sea of sameness. Ironically, in an industry preoccupied with product-centric messaging, the secret to incremental share gains isn’t unlocked inside the bag or can. Here we reveal insights to unleash your business and brand from the hamster wheel of product specsmanship. What does that mean?
In the pet food business, there is a predominant focus on what we describe as “better mousetrap” marketing – a repetitive formulation-to-formulation tug of war around assertions of nutritional superiority. It’s tough to pull off differentiation in a category of comparable recipe, ingredient and packaging forms that relegates distinctiveness to the margins.
Messaging similarities brand-to-brand follow a familiar refrain of faithfulness to higher quality, human grade protein ingredients; first five ingredients on the label game; the protein percentage wars; raw is right; and ancestral diet trope.
The emerging fresh pet food category leans heavily into beautiful photos of bowls laden with fresh food that looks remarkably like the chicken and potato hash you had for dinner last night. The ingredient and preparation arm wrestling in here is founded on providing the best possible diet for our furry family members. Sounds good, except that’s not why people buy from you.
Pet brands work to prove superiority and value with analytical arguments. The story is constructed around what brand A or B has done to deserve the pet parents’ purchase. It is all predicated on the assumption that the evidence arrayed on ingredients or formulation makes the brand desirable.
This is upside down. The over emphasis of fact-based arguments in brand communication is at odds with what we know about human neuroscience and how people think, behave and make purchase decisions. The part of our brain that governs the actions we take resides in the Limbic System, tied to our emotions, learning and memory. Emotion and behavior are closely linked – importantly, emotion informs behavior.
Brands that only offer analytical, fact-based arguments are trying to force a less-than-inspiring purchase decision on the consumer. In contrast, consumers operate reflexively 99 percent of the time to avoid perceived risk or disappointment, and instead gravitate towards brands they trust.
Think of it in the context of regret avoidance, such as pros and cons of a rational argument: “Well, this might be the right decision? Not sure.” And, trust-based approach informed by beliefs and inspiration: “I know this is the right decision.”
What happened there? Trust broke out.
Let’s take a minute to examine what trust is and how it is secured.
Trust is not a checklist
It is simply harder to make a case that your pet brand is better based on external, rational reasons defined as valuable by the brand. Trust can’t be achieved with lists of fact-based features and benefits.
Trust is a feeling, not a rational experience. What makes a brand trustworthy is defined by the consumer – not the brand. Think about it, trust usually emerges when we believe a person or organization purposefully operates above self-gain. More specifically, fulfilling an obligation to make a high-quality product does not in itself create trust. Trust cannot be invoked. It must be earned. You earn trust by demonstrating and communicating that you share similar values and beliefs with your consumer.
Which leads us to the most important marketing insight we can offer, one you should consider in your future planning. People will buy into your “why” before they will listen to “what” you do or “how” you do it. Most brands deploying conventional marketing strategies are focused on the “what” and “how” narratives while the most meaningful, effective story resides within the “why.”
Please take a minute to reflect on this. When a brand clearly, continuously communicates their “why” – what the brand believes – people lean into it because they see that the brands’ beliefs align with their own. Consumers will go to great lengths to include brands with a clear “why” in their lives. What’s happening here is not an analytical evaluation of features. Your brand belief system – your “why” – provides people with important markers and signals about shared values.
Pet parents aren’t buying what you do, they are buying why you do it. Data does not impact behavior because the part of the brain that influences actions is centered around emotional response – where trust and values reside.
We trust those with whom we share common beliefs. People want to be a part of communities and organizations that are like them.
Manipulation vs. Inspiration
When you lead with your “why” you are in a position to inspire people to “join” your brand’s purpose.
In the absence of a strong “why,” brands resort to manipulation through “better mousetrap” marketing focused on formulation, nutritional features, benefits, price and added services to enrobe the product in some form of differentiation. In pet food those differences are ultimately less distinctive.
The world’s most iconic example of a “why” brand is Apple. Transcendent brands lead with their beliefs.
Apple invented a personal computer founded on a new technology called Graphical User Interface. Was any consumer asking for this tech? No. Did this become the center of their narrative? No. Apple believed this innovation would literally change the world. It would humanize computers and the Macintosh could then serve to enable learning, inspiration, communication, creativity, artistry – in short it would change how we live. It did. The most famous Super Bowl TV commercial ever, Apple’s “1984” dystopian homage to the end of Big Blue, served to empower everyone with a world bending resource at their fingertips. The ad was an emotional tour de force – without a mention of any spec or tech. Apple challenged the status quo and inspired creativity. No. Small. Thing.
Apple has been leading with its “why” as strategic platform ever since. The “what” you make and “how” you do it provides validation and verification of the rightness of a purchase decision after it has occurred.
Guidance: time to work on your “why”
It’s one thing to try to appeal to others based on what you make. It’s entirely another when consumers want to join and belong to your purpose and community. You need clarity around your “why.” Without that understanding it is impossible for the outside world to perceive anything more than what your company does.
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.