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Sustainable Brand Relationships: Why it’s Time to Humanize Pet Food Marketing

By Robert Wheatley//April 9, 2024//

Sustainable Brand Relationships: Why it’s Time to Humanize Pet Food Marketing

By: Robert Wheatley//April 9, 2024//

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Let’s face it, times have changed. How people relate to your brand is now fundamentally the same thing as relating to another person. This is happening because sustainable brand relationships are built on a foundation of admiration and trust. It presents an opportunity for pet brands to achieve “transcendence” – a glorious condition where people join your brand community as believers and advocates, not just customers who transact. Sounds good, right? 

The characteristics of these improved brand-to-consumer relationships mirror how we treat and interact with the people we care about, those we help, support and enjoy being with, and importantly the individuals we trust. Yet, for the most part, pet brand communication isn’t very “human” at all. Instead, most often we find outreach typically springs from a relic of the persuasion era — where brands talk “at” people, while self-promoting product features and benefits, facts and arguments about better ingredients and claims of nutritional superiority.   


Bringing humanity to your pet brand voice 

I don’t think there’s a pet brand CMO or CEO who wouldn’t agree that effectiveness, engagement and related outcomes is coveted for the dollars invested in outbound communication. Yet if we’re recognizing and properly serving how brands should behave in the era of consumer control (over the relationship), doesn’t it make sense to consider how we talk to those we should effectively be caring about? When you interact with a friend, are you having a conversation or selling them?  

Marketing that looks, talks and walks like marketing today is less relevant and resonant to the recipient on the other end. People routinely tune out or ignore the hard sell or message that positions the brand as hero of the story rather than the consumer. All of us think of ourselves as the heroes of our life’s journey. Brands shouldn’t compete with consumers for the hero role.  

When people talk incessantly about themselves, how do we react? We lose interest, in a hurry. This dynamic is no less true in marketing. If you want your precious audience to pay attention, then the tone and manner of the communication needs to adjust. Consumers are not food scientists or nutritionists, rather they are people who have a vital loving relationship with their furry family members. Pet brands are afforded an opportunity to be a coach, guide, enabler and celebrant of this incredibly special and unique bond and lifestyle.  


Counterintuitive marketing 

I’m sure there are going to be readers who say, incredulously — “you mean to tell me I shouldn’t be pushing my formulation superiority?” Ahem. Well, that information already exists everywhere, on the web site and packaging. It doesn’t need to go away, but if you are equally interested in authentic engagement, then yes, this approach needs a makeover.  

I realize it all sounds counterintuitive to the concept of marketing as selling with an amplifier. If sustainable brand relationships should edge closer to replicating the human relationships we treasure, how does that impact brand communication? 

An incredibly strong example of this unfolded at the 2023 Super Bowl, where the highest rated ad following the world’s greatest tv viewership festival, was for a pet food called The Farmer’s Dog. This high-level and instructive achievement in strategic brand communication offered a story well-told that traced the poignant and touching relationship between a dog and young girl owner, charting the course of their life’s journey together. Not a word was spoken. No celebrity cameo. No green screen special effects wizardry.  

It was an emotional, heartfelt, memorable celebration of the incredibly powerful and important relationship between a person and their dog. There was no recitation of production formulation features or superior ingredient claims. The brand wasn’t shouted in every frame. It didn’t need any egregious self-promotion to get the powerful message across.  

It was supremely effective because people left it with an emotional connection. We all recognize that unique affection between pet parent and pet. The product existed as an enabler of pet wellbeing and vitality on life’s journey. It tugged at the heart strings and wore a relevant emotive connection to the pet/pet parent relationship like a coat.  


Emotion is the magic activator of decisions and actions 

Humans don’t really connect with heavy analytical, fact-based messaging. Behavioral research reinforces if the message is dense and requires burning mental calories to digest, we tend to avoid it. Neuroscience helps us understand that the neocortex side of the brain drives the decisions we make, the actions we take. The other word for it is the subconscious, and it is heavily influenced by emotion rather than analytical selling. 

All of the fact=based detail comes in to play AFTER the decision to buy is made, as the rationalization and support for why we made a good decision. Call it the confirmation of our wisdom and smart play. That said, the decision to purchase is founded on how we feel about a brand, thus why trust and admiration are such vital components of effective marketing.  


Guidance on the path to resonance 

Here are the components of sound marketing communication:

Emotional language and context – celebrate the unique bond we have with our pet.

Building trust – the litmus test is always help over hype.

Avoid dense messaging – people won’t burn the mental calories.

Don’t look at your customers as walking wallets – avoid the mud of transactional thinking.

Validation – deploy credible outside voices to verify what you want people to believe.

If you follow the research and listen to the counsel of cultural shift, you will enter the promised land of relevance and connection to your best users. When you present an authentic “why” that leads your strategies ahead of the “what” and “how” of your business, you are on the right path. 


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.