Must Love Dogs

On a rainy Saturday morning, dog lovers from around the country have lined up inside the Pedigree Dogstore in Times Square to get a first look at the dogs available for adoption. A sleepy beagle named Rex lies against a wall, nonchalantly lifting his head once in a while to check out the commotion brewing around him. A hound named Cherokee wags a tail and sniffs at every leg that passes. And volunteers from New York no-kill shelter Animal Haven cradle puppies from a Labrador-mix litter. Downstairs, a black puppy sitting on a woman’s lap in a street-level store window draws in pedestrians bustling along the busy midtown Manhattan street.

Timed to the brand’s sponsorship of the annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show, the temporary retail outlet is part of a campaign to raise awareness of the three-year-old Pedigree Adoption Drive. Private Practice star Kate Walsh opened the store and has talked about the program during recent TV appearances. An average of eight dogs are up for adoption daily, and three days after opening the store, a line has formed to enter a visiting area constructed to look like Central Park, with trees decorating the walls and park benches available to sit and play with potential new housemates.

“This is great,” says Patti Hunsicker, as she leaves the puppy park with her family. Hunsicker, who showed dogs for 35 years, traveled to New York City from Louisiana to attend the Westminster show. “We were here before it opened, ” she says, explaining that she uses Pedigree products and is a fan of the brand’s advertising. “I love the commercials. They are so sweet.”

The spots from this year’s adoption-drive campaign play on monitors. And in the corner of the store, painted black and yellow to reflect the brand’s color scheme, kids bounce around in an oversize dog bed and toss around a giant bone. In another corner, designed to look like a house with transparent walls, an attendant is recording a family’s dog story that later will be shared on the Web site dogsrule.com. A few feet away, shoppers examine products — from scarves and T-shirts to dog bowls and leashes — adorned with Pedigree’s three-year-old “Dogs rule” advertising tagline. Nearby, visitors use computers to upload pictures of their pooches into the “Million Dog Mosaic,” also featured on dogsrule.com.

Watching the day’s activities unfold, TBWA\Chiat\Day creative director Chris Adams, who created the campaign with partner Margaret Keene and is visiting the store for the first time, remarks, “I think this is the coolest thing we’ve ever done.” Since its debut in 2005, the “Dogs rule” effort has amassed industry accolades, including Kelly and Effie awards. Adams is excited to see the physical manifestation of the communications effort come to life in the store. “After three years we have enough of a story to tell,” he says. “We have become a brand not just about the food but everything that makes the world better for dogs.”

Pedigree’s adoption drive was launched in conjunction with the first “Dogs rule” advertising campaign in 2005 and has raised $3.5 million to date for about 3,500 shelters across the country. This year Pedigree’s fund-raising efforts have expanded to 14 markets around the world and are benefitting its own recently formed nonprofit, called the Pedigree Adoption Drive Foundation. Rob Leibowitz, vp, marketing of Pedigree parent Mars Petcare, says the foundation demonstrates another way that Pedigree is living up to its brand promise.

Shortly after TBWA began working on the brand in 2004, client and agency teams traveled to Pedigree’s Waltham Center for Pet Nutrition in Leicestershire, England. After immersing the company in the agency’s famous disruption strategy sessions, the client embraced a statement written by TBWA chairman and chief creative officer Lee Clow: “If you convince me you love dogs, I’ll let you feed mine.” Leibowitz says that motto has influenced everything about the way the company behaves, both externally and internally.

“Dog food brands were missing the emotional high ground,” Clow says. Ads focused on product shots and either fell into cartoon-like expressions of dogs or scientific explanations of how the food benefitted canine health. None talked about what makes dogs and their relationships with their owners special. “We told them, ‘People who have dogs love their dogs. Why wouldn’t you be a brand that loves dogs and have it motivate everything you do?”

Pedigree had long relied upon its “developed with vets, recommended by top breeders” positioning with ads that focused on the food, and the company was ready for change. “Just making that statement and hoping that by itself it would keep us in the leadership position wasn’t the way to go. We make good food for dogs, but just saying that and expecting people to believe us wasn’t enough,” says Leibowitz. “It got us to do some soul searching about the brand, the corporation and what we really stand for.”

The tagline “‘Dogs rule’ is the perfect encapsulation of everything that we stand for,” adds Leibowitz. “Everything that we do is because we love dogs, because dogs rule. It’s just so simple.”

What’s more, it appears to be working. According to Information Resources, Pedigree sales increased 6.1 percent last year to $548 million in a year that saw the overall sales in the category grow by just 2 percent.

Mars was also brave enough to “walk the talk,” put forth by its tagline, Clow says. If the consumer message was going to be about the love of dogs, the same message had to be clear throughout the company. A manifesto called “Dogma” was distributed among employees, who were also encouraged to take their dogs to work and on sales calls. Where office locations did not allow dogs, the company moved into pet-friendly spaces when the opportunity arose.

Regarding Pedigree’s decades-long sponsorship of the Westminster show, TBWA suggested the company broaden its efforts to include the greater dog world, not just the pure breeds represented by the dog show circuit. “That’s an artificial dog world,” Clow remembers telling the client. “It’s not about the real dog world, the real customers of Pedigree, and the beauty and magic of owning a dog. So we went after the shelter-dog program. It was a perfect counterpoint to Westminster, to celebrate dogs that aren’t so lucky and invite people to adopt.”

In addition to celebrity appearances at the Times Square store, promotions for this year’s drive also included a January segment on The Apprentice, which had contestants crafting adoption awareness ads. The overall campaign, which asks consumers to “help us help them,” has undergone a subtle creative evolution. When it began in 2005, the executions were a little sunnier and featured complete stories, says the creative team. In other words, TV viewers saw the dogs before and after the adoption. In subsequent ads, TBWA pulled harder on the heartstrings, leaving stories about dogs without a home unresolved. The ads, which feature voiceovers by actor David Duchovny, have gotten more realistic through the years, and each ad in this year’s effort focuses on telling a single dog’s story. Filmed in local shelters, the dogs chosen to appear in the ads are all provided with foster homes from within the agency until they are adopted.

One of the challenges in promoting the Adoption Drive, says the creative team, is fighting the preconceived notions about shelter dogs, that they are poorly behaved, dangerous or just plain ugly. That’s why one spot, for instance, tells the story of Bailey, a smiling mutt who lost his home not because he is bad but because his family moved into an apartment that doesn’t allow dogs. “Each story is so powerful and universal,” says Keene.

Taking cues from the agency’s work on Apple, the creative team, Keene says, chose to keep the design elements of the campaign, including the merchandising and new packaging that rolls out later this year, as uncluttered as possible. “Keep it beautiful and keep it simple,” she says.

The new packaging for the dog food features photographs of dogs, shot by photographer Peggy Sirota. The animals look straight into the camera to evoke a feeling of warmth and connection. Getting the company to agree to change its packaging, however, took some work. “We kept fighting for it,” Clow says. “We wanted to make the packaging into a much stronger medium for the brand.”

The merchandise, “Dogs Rule Gear,” which originally began as a small run of T-shirts sporting the “Dogs rule” line for Pedigree employees, has turned into an unexpected hit. Although apparel and some dog accessories are available for purchase online, the Times Square store afforded the agency the opportunity to expand the line to include other items such as limited-edition T-shirts, scarves and coffee-table books. “That’s how branding works. Everything you do adds up to how you feel about the brand. Seeing a ‘Dogs rule’ T-shirt can make you feel as good as the commercials,” Clow says. “From TV commercials to cause to store to packaging, all things hopefully add up to a brand people like and trust.”

Still, the greatest reward for the agency, whose global CCO is himself a dog lover and owner of several, is creating change for a cause it believes in. “I really do have a special feeling about dogs,” Clow says, “and the idea that a marketing strategy and a way a company goes to market can also do some good in the world is a good feeling. It’s rewarding that every year it is getting momentum and saving dogs’ lives.”