Imagine for a moment we’re gathered around the virtual conference room table at “Growler Pet Nutrition” of Walla Walla, Washington to discuss strategic planning.
Over the course of the day, presentations are delivered:
- Sales results from last year by category and channel (dry, wet, treats)
- Outcomes of seasonal retail promotions on sales volume and margin
- R&D discusses the innovation pipeline on recipe improvements and ingredient changes
- New packaging initiative with designs and timeline to execute
- Forecasting on anticipated growth in each segment and channel partner
There might even be a SWOT analysis of brand strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Onward the discussion goes to formulate plans and programs for the year ahead.
Sound familiar? But there’s a major loophole in this meeting’s agenda – a big gap that can spell the difference in business growth outcomes between a base hit and a homerun.
Pet parents must be the center of your business planning universe
To quote a simple but salient observation from Theodore Levitt one of our greatest modern marketing minds, from his book The Marketing Imagination, “The purpose of business is to get and keep a customer.” In today’s digital world, the power in every brand-to-consumer relationship has been fully transferred to the customer. They own the levers of engagement and behavior. They drive outcomes. Their participation cannot be mandated or invoked at will by pet food brands.
- Stands to reason then that all good to great plans are dependent upon the ability to attract and keep customers. The days of “if you build it, they will come” are long gone. They have been replaced by the consumer’s requirement for brands to engage them in the spirit of relevance, resonance and trust.
The meeting example cited above should have started with a download on your users, by persona – the detailed behavioral descriptions of key segments in your customer base that comprise heavy to less frequent and informed purchasers.
You will have made investments in ongoing consumer insight research to best understand the passions, concerns and lifestyle behaviors of each segment. Your best efforts are made to get as close to your fans as you possibly can, for the very reason that brands that are most in tune with their core customer will win every time. Why? Because those consumer-centric brands have a road map for dialing in relevance, resonance and trust. By virtue of doing that hard work, marketing is no longer a hit or miss proposition driven mostly by hope or worse, arrogance.
Consumers know when you know them
When you’ve taken the time to go deep on your best customers to understand what makes them tick in their daily lives and relationships with their pets, they supply you with the language to employ when reaching out to them. Then with your brand communication and outreach programs so precisely built around them and their interests, they’ll immediately recognize their own voices and personal interests in it. You are no longer talking selfishly to yourselves or making your brand the hero of the story. Instead your brand becomes a reflection of their lives – and immediately, intrinsically gains greater relevance with them.
- It is so easy to fall into the pit of self-reverence and self-promotion. After all, you may be deeply in love with your high-quality formulations, high standards and commitments to producing excellent pet food. But in the admiration of your own reflection in the marketing pool, you inadvertently lose sight that it’s the pet parent whose reflection should be staring back at you.
During a strategy planning project for a new, emerging pet food brand, we built a private Facebook panel of pet parents who represented the highest echelon of engaged, educated pet food buyers. We call them Holistic Purists. They are often raw food feeders or high-end kibble buyers who rotate among forms and proteins. They are extremely knowledgeable about pet food ingredient statements. They have opinions. Their lives and personal preferences are tied to their tightly-knit bond with their pets.
Over a 30-day period, we stepped this unique 40-person group through a series of weekly exercises designed to elicit detailed descriptions of their lives, concerns and wants, their desires and preferences around pet food, their lifestyles priorities and what resonated with them.
We asked them to pretend they were the CMO of a pet food company, and how would they design an ad they would find compelling. It was a remarkable exercise that blew away myths and assumptions from the executive team on how to go to market. We learned a ton.
The basis of planning always begins with your best users
The mirror your brand marketing programs are holding up serves to reflect your customers and their interests. In doing so you enhance the relevance and salience of your brand. If you’ve blended this lens with lifestyle messaging around their desire to enhance the health and wellbeing of their furry family members, you will earn their trust.
You may believe it’s the recipes and protein percentages and technical wizardry in production that lures folks in. But analytical, fact-based messaging requires them to burn mental calories to comprehend. Behavioral research confirms humans just don’t operate that way.
- Your customer-centric planning and focus on informing strategy with consumer insight will imbue your brand and marketing strategies with the opportunity to meet consumers in a more relevant way.
The conference room scenario we discussed earlier is often typical and reveals an easy trap to fall into. Frankly, it’s just more work and expense to get close to your users. But the insight gained will surprise you with new learning, re-orient your assumptions about what people care about, and will provide verifiable confidence you’re on the right path to real engagement.
This qualitative research that’s focused more on customer anthropology than tracking transaction data, will supply you with a new roadmap and a more relevant brand. Without it, you’re literally flying blind. With it, you’ll gain confidence that you’ve dialed your brand to fully engage your users. Your marketing investments will pay off because real, authentic humanity (sorry pets don’t have wallets) will have found its way into your go-to-market plan.
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.