Market Focus: Calling All Pets

Woof, woof. Tweet, tweet. Meowwww. Take your pick. They all make registers go ka-ching!

Whether they're wild, woolly, pesky, or whiney, consumers love their pets. They're so devoted that expenditures on supplies like toys, food, and apparel, (yes, apparel), hit $34.3 billion in 2004, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA). If current trends continue, 2005 is likely to be another banner year. As pet product suppliers rush to meet the growing demand, marketing dollars are rising commensurately. Pet supply marketers increasingly compete with Internet upstarts and deploy a mix of media to get their brand messages out.

The APPMA says one in three American households have a pet of some sort. That adds up to about 65 million dogs and 77 million cats, not to mention some 200 million fish and millions more birds, reptiles, and assorted "small animals" from ferrets to gerbils. Diverse as they may be, they have a couple of things in common: They're hungry, they're supply-intensive, and they're doted upon by legions of Americans who spare no expense for their precious pets.

The Consumer "People are passionate about animals," says Friday Forsthoff, president of Animal Voices, a Davis, Calif.-based agency that specializes in marketing pet products. "They consider the pet to be part of the family, and they want products that reflect that. They're more willing to spend the money to get a quality product if they know it's good for their pet."

Forsthoff says there's a growing trend toward higher-end pet products. The recent interest in home-improvement reality shows, she says, has driven greater interest in pet products that mesh with the home. "People want to color-coordinate, so they find these fancy, beautiful dog bowls to blend in with the kitchen," Forsthoff says.

Kurt Iverson, a spokesman for Iams, notes the passion of pet owners while adding that there's also plenty of thought that goes into purchases. "Part of what we do [in marketing] is appeal to people's sense of logic," Iverson says. "Better ingredients mean a better pet food. The brand's personality is that of a caring brand. We have to reflect that the pet is really a part of the family."

Dedicated pet owners don't always settle for basic products they find in the supermarket or pet store. They go online in droves, looking for small companies creating high-end, niche products.

The Players One such company is Global Pet Products, founded by Sylvia Pickett, the owner of a Shih Tzu. Pickett started creating products to make travel more comfortable for her pets, and she used a combination of trade-show appearances and a Web site to get the word out.

"We'd do some ads in Pet Age, Modern Dog, Bird Talk, Bird Fancy," Picket says of the early days, adding that the Web site was critical to the company's success. "I'm not sure how we got to the top. I've heard of paying fees too [to raise a site's profile on search engines], but we never did that. I think our products were just so unique and different, people were wanting them and looking for them."

For a global player like Iams, high-profile TV events augment print, radio, and online media buys. "Dog shows are an important place for us to be," Iverson says. "That's why we created the AKC Eukanuba National Championship, which airs on Animal Planet."

The Vendors Pet owners have long turned to magazines to gain information about their animals, with titles ranging from Cat Fancy to breed-specific publications such as the Bichon Frise Reporter. When it comes to big ad buys though, Animal Planet is the 800-pound terrier. Originally home to mostly wildlife programs, Animal Planet has greatly diversified its menu in recent years, drawing on its base while adding shows that appeal to pet owners and beyond.

"We're being more innovative," says Animal Planet General Manager Maureen Smith. "We're tapping into what people who own pets are really drawn to." Smith says the channel has done a great deal of research into its audience, discovering that while pet owners love to see shows about domestic animals, they're also fascinated by those in the wild.

"Simply by being a pet owner, people have a nurturing attitude toward all animals," Smith says. "From an advertiser's point of view, it's encouraging for them to know they can reach people [with our wildlife shows] just as easily as they can with a show about dogs."

Smith continues to push Animal Planet in new directions. In January, the channel aired "Puppy Bowl" during the Super Bowl broadcast. An action-packed canine spectacle featuring puppies playing on a faux gridiron, the Puppy Bowl also included information about how to adopt a pet. Smith says people are already asking about next year's Puppy Bowl.

Outlook Animal Planet continues to expand its audience; like so many others, it increasingly needs to tie its Web site content to its on-air programming.

"Research shows our viewers aren't passive observers," Smith says. "The Web site makes it so they can respond to what they see on the air, and the Puppy Bowl experience showed us they really respond to ad messages if the content touches them in a certain way."

Iams' Iverson also points to the increasing importance of online promotion, with more pet owners taking advantage of the company's Web site to select the right food for their pet. "You can just do more online than you can with a [TV] commercial," Iverson says.

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