Pet Brand Positioning Passé: A New Approach to Differentiation Provides Strategic Lift

By Robert Wheatley//December 5, 2023//

Pet Brand Positioning Passé: A New Approach to Differentiation Provides Strategic Lift

By: Robert Wheatley//December 5, 2023//

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The pet food business is unique. There are not many CPG businesses like pet food where dozens of competing brands market similar products, produced in a similar format, packaged in a similar way with a similar nutritional story percolating underneath. At once, this presents a challenge to achieving meaningful uniqueness and differentiation, a foundational strategic requirement for sustainable business advantage over the long haul.

Classic marketing approaches favor brand positioning as a practice aimed at identifying and capturing gaps and white space, applied in an effort to distinguish a brand from competing choices. In pet food, however, brand positioning strategies are quickly challenged by the pervasive sameness between products in any given pricing class. Candidly there’s a better approach to marketplace leverage that doesn’t depend on trying to eke out some sliver of blue sky between various competitors on shelf.

  • Of note, preoccupation with competitive products and marketing strategies counterproductively contributes to commoditization of the business. Why? Because ongoing specsmanship is the only game to be played when thinking this way – beyond margin killing price incentives.


Instead, a new path to differentiation borne out of a pet brand’s own heart and soul leads to lasting, defensible differentiation. It is not impacted by or related to what competing brands do or don’t do. Here we will explore this concept that takes the brand positioning quandary down a different path, one that offers lasting uniqueness and a blueprint for future decisions on the direction your brand takes as a “category of one.”

To explain this approach, we should first clarify what it’s not about:

  • This isn’t brand positioning
  • Or creating a contrived differentiator
  • It’s not a tagline exercise


Brand differentiation grounded in mission, values and deeper meaning

Today lasting brand relationships are built on a foundation of admiration and trust and as such can deliver significant financial premiums. This represents a form of goodwill that can be isolated as a component of business value. It can result in higher margins, while also working to reduce the cost of promotion, improving ROI and bottom-line performance.

Most important, this process creates the opportunity for transcendence – the state of being admired – where pet parents “join” your brand community as members, not merely customers.

In order to build a powerful, relevant and unique brand identity, we first have a responsibility to inject added meaning, trust and belief into the tissue of the relationship.

This process is an effort to codify your brand’s inner self. It matters because the marketing game has shifted completely from command and control (persuasion and overt feature/benefit selling) to the Relationship Era. This graphic helps compare the difference.

As you can see, brand strategy in the age of consumer control is built around forging deeper relationships. This is ultimately a focus on customer centricity rather than chasing competitors. Your purpose discovery builds separation and salience while creating a strategic anchor that informs all decisions related to brand message/communication, innovation, employee recruiting and retention, sourcing decisions, CAPEX investments and so on.


Creating a Brand Stand (stronger than positioning)

This means uniqueness and differentiation are an outcome of a disciplined process to investigate your brand’s purpose and beliefs. Your separation and elevation from other brands is no longer dependent on formulation tweaks or parsing the edges of competing brand propositions looking for some marginal whitespace. Instead, it is built on your distinct brand meaning and vision, which your company alone will own.

We express it this way because effective marketing strategy has changed and relating to a brand is now fundamentally the same thing as relating to a person.


Moving from competitor focus to consumer

Now brand differentiation emanates from discovery of the unique DNA characteristics of your brand’s unselfish, human-relevant purpose rather than a comparison of ingredient sourcing and statements. No one can co-opt your unique vision and mission. It is yours alone and wires the brand for deeper connections from a community of users who align with your belief system to become advocates and ambassadors as a result.

The Brand Stand statement is a summary of your True North constructed around this information:


Your core beliefs and purpose:

  • We believe ___________.


Why (your company exists):

  • What you fulfill in your customer’s lives.


How (you deliver on our mission):

  • We provide ___________.


What (business you are in):

  • We deliver ____________.


Your Brand Stand (not a tag line) is the outward projection (guide, litmus test) of your brand beliefs. It should coalesce around these three themes:

  1. Credibility – Delivering on your promises.
  2. Care – Genuine caring about your customers and their pets’ health and well-being.
  3. Congruency – What your brand states should be matched and backed by conduct. Business behavior and belief must be in sync at all times.

The degree to which you will prosper in the relationship era hinges largely on how well you can identify and seek alignment on common causes with people while also operating on the same wavelength.

Perhaps the most important outcome of this process is the lasting roadmap it delivers. Brand positioning tends to change over time from campaign to campaign. Your Brand Stand is a lasting guide to your business and brand building decisions and shouldn’t change because it is discovered in the fabric of your brand DNA.


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.




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