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A few years ago, I made a presentation at a pet industry convention on marketing best practices that unearthed a weakness common to many brands in the business. As a bit of presentation theater, I built a slide showing primary product claims made by 10 premium pet brands on one side and a mixed order of brand names to the right.

I challenged the audience to match the claim to the brand. It was nearly impossible, and that was the point.

Why?

Because all of the claims were so similar in message, tone and wording you could easily interchange any brand name with any statement and it would still work. What does that tell you? An industry plagued with a significant dosing of brand sameness, a condition unwittingly acting to commoditize brand propositions across the store and in consumers’ minds.

Think of how confusing it can be for consumers shopping the shelves trying to determine what’s distinctive when the form of the product is the same (kibble), the packaging format is the same and the language is the same. The claims start to run together too, as a stew of common concept and expression from brand to brand.

Increasingly it is possible for brands to replicate the recipes, ingredient decks and processes of competitors such that the game of inches is exactly that, and anyone believing they have a sustainable ‘secret sauce’ of technical advantage may be running against the competitive current in the long term.

What’s the remedy and the path then to incremental share growth in a healthy category  — assuming you have more ambition going than simply riding the ‘float all boats’ trend of premiumization that’s benefited many high-quality entrants?

 

The Strategic Zig to Everyone’s Zag

Let’s start with the pet parent and the path to purchase. A trigger event occurs such as a pet adoption or new puppy and kitten arrive on the scene creating a reason to look for a high quality premium diet. Absent the power of social proof or recommendations from family and friends, our intrepid pet parent searches web sites and social channels trying to gain expert, credible advice.

Right here brands can play a major role in an important moment of truth at the start of our pet parent’s journey. What they typically find is a mash-up of messaging around protein-centric foods, percentages of same polished with some references to human grade quality. Unfortunately, this drives brand choice into a beauty contest of parading packaging graphics and then which one seems to be higher quality, most authentic, honest, or resonant due to attractive colors and photographs.

 

  • The role of great marketing here is to recognize the nature of this similarity beast and work to dial in radical differentiation, what we refer to as a zig to the sea of zags going on in the category.

 

A former client of ours Corona beer famously worked to create the ‘best positioned brand in the beer business’ by walking away from the traditional messaging tropes in the business. No more guy chases girl vignette. No more hop, barley talk. No more great taste less filling. No more memorable song. Instead, Corona chose to align itself entirely with the symbolism of a place everyone would prefer to be – a beach.

This was not an attempt to romance the liquid or make superiority claims on taste. It was an emotional construct of mental association between the beach, sun, surf and the beer. Corona broke the conventions of the beer marketing textbook and did a zig to everyone else’s zag. The result was not only a rise to leading brand in the import category, Corona actually moved up to rival the largest brands on earth in total volume. Wow. Sure the lime ritual helped, but the real magic was in mining the emotions with mental imagery and symbolism.

 

Marketplace Clutter

The most pressing challenge to strategy in pet food is the clutter of like sounding brand language. There may be an appearance of safety within the herd for marketers by following similar schemes brand to brand, but in the end it casts your destiny mostly against distribution gains and hope the premium category continues its upward trajectory.

Please note it is consumers not companies who, over time, decide which brands live and prosper and which brands fade. That is the outcome of the digital world we live in that transferred control from brands to the consumer. Doesn’t it make sense then to look at their lifestyle interests, needs and concerns around their pets and work backwards from there for insight?

 

  • While similarity is a fact of life in formulations, forms and ingredients product to product, your brand is where distinctiveness, ownership and separation can be managed for long-term sustainable growth.

 

The goal of radical differentiation is best served, as in the Corona example, when you decide not to fight the specsmanship wars and instead look to mine the emotional arena of pet parent to pet lifestyle adventures and affection. You’re looking for the symbols and emotional relevance that constitutes the “why” pet parents express their love through the quality of the food they provide.

It might feel scary to depart from the beauty shots of glistening chicken or salmon filets that are so frequently offered as the signal of food quality assurance. However the Zig to be sufficiently different by thinking differently borrows a chapter from one of the most famous and well developed brands on earth – Apple. “Think Different” was an association campaign that aligned their brand with great minds, creators and told a story of enablement in creative expression.

Did they venture into hard drive specs and processor speeds? No. Fighting clutter with more clutter is like pouring gas on a fire hoping to extinguish it. The human brain deals with clutter by blocking out most of it.

 

How To Get Invited In

When the pet parent is the hero of your brand story, the brand is no longer trying to compete with the consumer for that role. Consumers see themselves as the hero of their life journey every single day. The role of your brand is to operate as expert guide and coach on their pet parenting journey.

When they see your voice as a reflection of their lifestyle aspirations, that mirror you’re holding up creates relevance and resonance. With that, you have a shot at engagement on a more impactful level and your future becomes less dependent on profit depleting mega spends in paid media to hammer similar sounding messages.

The path to engagement is lined with pet parents’ interests and is less focus on self-promotion of product specs. If you do this well you can create a clutter-busting Zig. Your reward is a shot at marketshare gains that outpace the category.

 

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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