Petco Aims to Be Top Dog

 

Household pets are simply part of the family today.

In fact, Americans own more pets now than ever before. In 1988 the American Pet Products Association reported that 56% of households in the United States had a pet in the family. Compare that to more than 68% of U.S. homes in 2014 that had at least one family pet—that’s more than 82 million homes. And pet industry analysts say they expect that number to grow.

That growth isn’t the only big change in pet ownership—and the marketing opportunities it creates. The attitudes toward family pets have changed, drastically. Gone are the days when Fido is lounging inside a doghouse—away from the family—and eating leftovers in a tin bowl. Today, more Americans are carefully considering exactly what their pets are eating and are working hard to craft a comfortable, healthy lifestyle for their animals.

“Even just the way that people describe their pets now is so different,” says Susan Dawson, director of marketing and brand strategy for animal supply company Petco. “So often you don’t hear them talking about owning a pet. They talk about being a pet parent, and they describe their pets in the same way that you describe your children. Along with that comes those same [family] desires to give the best and do the best for those creatures that live in your house—who you’re going to care for and love in the same way if they were human children.”

Of course, with the increase of pet ownership and the focus on pet nutrition comes the expansion of the pet care industry. “Pet nutrition is a growing concern among families—without a doubt,” Dawson says. “A proof-point of that is simply the amount of innovation in the pet food space and the amount of research that’s going into making the best products available for pets—all to help extend their lives, make them thrive, and ensure that they are the happiest and healthiest they can be.”

In fact, analysts for market research publisher Packaged Facts predict that the sale of natural pet food will reach $9.4 billion in the U.S. by 2017; compare that with $4.1 billion in 2012. Acutely aware of the opportunity that presents, marketers at Petco continue to evolve their offerings with the changing preferences of those pet parents, and the company is attempting to set itself apart with a focus on nutrition. “A couple of years ago we really zeroed in on our brand transformation and positioning, then really focused on ‘The Power of Together,’” Dawson says. “The Power of Together” is Petco’s evergreen branding campaign launched in 2013, which Dawson says “revolves around the strong bond between humans and their pets.”

Barking up the right tree

This past February marketers at Petco doubled down on that strong family pet bond with a new initiative, entitled “What We Feed Them Matters.” Petco’s internal creative team launched this latest campaign extension, which attempts to go far beyond simply promoting nutritious pet food. It ties into a set of beliefs.

“We want to encourage pet parents to think about the impact that food and nutrition have on their pets’ health,” says Brad Weston, EVP, chief merchandising officer at Petco and president of Unleashed by Petco, a smaller neighborhood brand launched in 2009. “[That’s why] we handpick the best brands to make it easy for pet parents to navigate the complex world of nutrition and find the right food for their pets.”

Certainly, families with pets are fueling the surge in demand for products that they perceive to be safer and more nutritious than traditional fare. And much of the time, pets with specific needs—such as sensitive skin, digestive difficulties, or obesity—motivate families to opt for these specialty pet foods.

Many of those specialty pet products on the market, however, aren’t cheap.

They can range in price from $5.99 for 5.5 ounces of Nature’s Recipe chewy dog treats that are corn- and wheat-free to a whopping $62.99 for a 25-pound bag of Merrick’s grain-free buffalo and sweet-potato kibble. With myriad options in this market, the natural-food factor simply isn’t enough to make new products fly off the shelves anymore. That’s why marketers at Petco say they delved deeper than simply selling specialty pet food options. Now, it’s about pet care education for animal lovers.

“We’re celebrating the importance of the human-animal connection and educating pet parents,” says Danielle Mohn, VP of marketing and customer strategy at Petco. “[W]hat we feed them really does matter.”

 

 

Pushing ahead of the pack

Recent reports say that Petco is spending more than $20 million on TV and other traditional media advertising for the nutrition campaign; that’s in addition to an unspecified sum for several other initiatives, such as social campaigns.

In fact, “What We Feed Them Matters” has several moving parts, including inspiring TV spots showing the bond between pets and their families; in-store services, including weekly nutrition demos; an online community forum dubbed Pet Talk Place; and an online hub, Petco.com/FoodMatters, which is specifically designed for eager-to-learn animal lovers.

Petco’s robust digital portal teaches pet lovers about nutrition and provides a plethora of animal health advice through videos and other engaging content, including instructions on how to read pet food labels, tips on which unsuspecting foods might be toxic to your dogs, and articles on topics such as how to transition your pets to this new, wholesome type of food. The current initiative builds brand affinity for Petco among consumers and provides families—and their pets—with positive, healthy customer experiences.

“It gives pet parents more information—better information—about choices that they could be making,” Petco’s Dawson says. “[The in-store demos] even allow the animals to taste test the options while at one of our in-store demonstrations. If they don’t like how it tastes, you’ll know and can make more informed decisions about your purchases.”

Tastes certainly differ from pet to pet. Marketers at Petco, however, say that animal food is indeed mirroring one major trend in human food: Pet food is increasingly more organic and replete with specialty and healthy options. “It goes back to just considering the basics of nutrition,” Dawson explains. “Really making sure [pet parents] are making the best decisions that they can for near-term health and longevity for their pets.”

Making customer-centric goals the cat’s meow

Marketers at Petco say they’ve set qualitative and quantitative goals for this nutritive-based campaign. Dawson says those goals aren’t just centered on the company, but also on customers and, of course, their pets.

“We hope to give pet parents the knowledge and resources they need to make the best possible choices for their pets in the hope that they’re extending their precious time together,” Dawson explains about the company’s quality-centric goals. “For customers, we want them to know that Petco is their partner in helping make those decisions, and there’s no question or topic too big or too small to try and work with the customer to try and provide an answer.”

Of course, Petco, like any major company looking to monitor its successes and challenges, has delineated several goals rooted in metrics that Dawson says reflect how the current nutrition-based initiative is impacting families and their pets. “Engagement is absolutely one key metric that we’ll definitely be looking at—across all channels,” she says. “Whether that’s online video, across social, across our online community Pet Talk Place, and others. Engagement is an indication that we’ve spurred a conversation, which is definitely one of the key things that we’re after.”

Teaching an old dog new (marketing) tricks

During Petco’s 50-year history, marketers have intentionally kept up with the ever-evolving wants and needs of families and their cherished pets. Dawson says that Petco is setting itself apart by building on the company’s expertise, while always maintaining a pliable, sensitive point of view.

“Having watched and participated—actively—over that 50-year period really put us in a unique position because we have tracked, watched, participated, and made specific decisions about what we’re choosing to sell,” Dawson explains, reflecting on the evolution of Petco during the past five decades. “We’re always learning and growing. That means we need to be reactive with what our customers are telling us and sharing with us. So, that means we’re also always evolving. Any challenges that might be presented, we will learn from and evolve. But looking back at where we started [as a company] we’re feeling extremely successful; we know that we’re on a great trajectory to continue to enjoy that same success.”

When all is said and done, Dawson says that marketers at Petco have one overarching goal: “Ultimately, what we want for our customers is for them to have the most possible time, in a positive way, with the animals that they love so much.”

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