Kibble over Kale, Catnip over Carrots. Will Consumers Choose Your Pet Brand?

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Consumers are more likely to make a special trip to the market for pet needs than they are for fresh veggies or cold remedies, this according to a recent Nielsen Company study[i].  Having spent time waiting in line to buy cat food after a long day at work to avoid kitty wrath at home, I can attest to the validity of the research.  I am one of the growing number of consumers who consider pets family members, and although I do not dress them in funny outfits, they live a decidedly different lifestyle than the outdoor pets I had growing up.

For grocers and specialty pet retailers, the fact that pet care needs “trigger more trips to the grocery store than any other category” is very good news.  Even better news?  Forty-seven percent of consumers who own both dogs and cats purchase dry pet food weekly[ii].  That’s a lot of trips.

For pet marketers, it can be challenging to influence consumers to pay attention to a brand when there is already a preference in place.  Price discounting can affect brand selection when a pet parent is managing a tight budget, however, it may be more effective in the selection of a retailer than for a brand trial or a switch.  Moreover, once a consumer becomes accustomed to regular product discounts, they may be reluctant to pay regular retail pricing for the brand.  (Just try to catch me paying full price for a box of cereal at the grocery store or for a pair of shoes at Macy’s!)

The pet product brand choice and supplier source has never been greater for consumers.  Pet parents can pick up products, including premium food, at their local grocery store, specialty pet retailer, local veterinary clinics, and online.  There are even custom formulated, human-grade, “made fresh” foods that are delivered to a consumer’s door every week with free shipping included.  Grain-free, gluten-free, high-protein, low-protein, loaded with blueberries, great taste your pet will love – there are products for every consumer preference.

Add to the marketing challenges – millennials, the newly anointed “greatest generation of pet owners.”  They now account for 35% of the 84.6 million U.S. pet owning households[iii].  These consumers offer a variety of challenges for pet product marketers.  The consensus is that they abhor being “sold” and would rather decide on a brand after a bit of a courtship and after digesting data they’ve sought[iv].  They spend nearly 22 hours a week on their mobile devices, with a significant amount of that time spent on social media[v].  Millennials also place a tremendous amount of value in the opinion of their peers[vi].

So, what is a pet marketer to do?  How do they separate their brands from the rest of the pack? What tools are effective in making the greatest number of people aware of a brand and which are invaluable in having one-on-one conversations with consumers?  How can small and medium sized brands build sales and be good stewards of a marketing budget while they compete for a consumer’s share of mind alongside mega pet brands with mega pet brand budgets?

Every brand’s objectives, challenges, and budget are unique.  Let me share with you how one client used a “test campaign” to establish best practices and benchmarking before expanding into other territories.

A Successful Campaign Design

“Pet Tweetz” (not the real name) is an established pet brand.  One of several brands owned by a privately-held company, it has broad distribution across the U.S. in specialty pet and online retailers.  Over the past few years as more competitors have entered the marketplace, sales have become flat or in decline in some key markets.  With more products entering the market, there is also the problem of shrinking shelf space as retailers consider shiny new products across the entire pet product category.

My client had several objectives for the brand – increase product awareness, increase website traffic, stimulate consideration, support retailers, and of course – sell more product.  The client wanted to get the attention of millennials and grow their loyal base of women 35+. And by the way, do it in six weeks with a limited budget.

The first thing my team did was spend quality time with the client asking a lot of questions.  Early meetings were used to thoroughly understand key performance indicators (KPIs) for the campaign and for establishing a value matrix to be used in evaluating results.  We discussed potential challenges in measurement and interpretation.  For instance, it seemed reasonable to adjust year-over-year website traffic before establishing a benchmark as some organic growth should have occurred during the preceding year.  We also decided to include a third-party, test-and-control research study to measure awareness, consideration, and effectiveness of different assets used in the campaign.  Also, study respondents indicating they had purchased the product would be cross checked against actual sales data provided by two large retailers and

The campaign was designed using two key California markets for the client – San Francisco and San Diego.  By using these two markets, we could easily compare actual web traffic and sales data to Los Angeles and Sacramento for performance benchmarking.

Using an established budget, we recommended the client use broadcast and streaming radio, along with video pre-roll on the iHeartRadio app.  In each market, we used two female skewing radio stations with a good concentration of pet ownership; one with a younger audience and the other older.  A pet-owning, on-air talent was used in each market as an influencer and to connect with pet enthusiasts on social media.

How to Make a Brand Manager Say “Wow” Eight Times

Campaign results were no less than stunning and when reviewed with the brand manager, eight times his response included an excited “wow.”

From the very first day of the campaign, website traffic from the two test markets were markedly up.  In fact, over the course of the six-week campaign, website traffic from the two test markets were up by an average of 57% over a preceding pre-campaign period.  Average performance in four control markets for the same period was down 12%[vii].

Radio Drives Web Traffic

After the campaign, general market brand awareness among consumers not exposed to campaign marketing assets was 5%.  Among consumers who had listened to stations used in the campaign (via broadcast and/or streaming), brand awareness was 18-20% (with the higher percentage of 20% from stations using on-air talent influencers). Even more impressive was that 97% of consumers in the brand aware group who were fans of the on-air influencer could properly associate product attributes with the brand[viii].

Brand Awareness

Of course, the bottom line is often the bottom line for a successful marketing campaign.  In this case year-over-year sales increases were significant when compared to similar sized control markets.

Kibble over kale, catnip over carrots – consumers have a growing variety of product choices for their pet’s nutrition.  In such a competitive environment, mere product differentiation may not be enough.  A good mix of marketing assets must be used and when possible, validated with third party research.

[i] No bones about it: The pet category is a real growth opportunity, 2-14-2017,

[ii] Souce: Packaged Facts July 2016 national online pet owners survey.

[iii] Millennials led US pet ownership to 84.6 million in 2016, 4-7-2017,

[iv] Millennials and Marketing, 2-29-2016,

[v] TNS study reveals millennials spend nearly one day each week on their phones,

[vi] Projected shopping habits: Millennials vs. generation z, 9-8-2016,

[vii] Google Analytics provided by client.

[viii] Source: Survata third party market research. “fans” = “like a little” or “like a lot” the DJ endorser.  N = 77 AWARE fans (75 reported awareness); N = 47 AWARE NON-FANS (40 reported aware)

Jeani Steven holds an MBA in marketing.  A seasoned marketer and business development executive she currently works for iHeartMedia, Inc. in San Francisco, CA. Jeani has successfully led sales teams and identified new markets for various media companies throughout her career while growing business for clients. As a precursor to her sales and marketing efforts she was a finance executive for a Fortune 500 company, bringing a business perspective from the bottom line up. Jeani can be reached at

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