As Pet Industry Prospers, Ads Get More Humanized

Petco’s latest TV spots show a store employee taking a wild ride on an eight-foot-tall rubber chew toy before recommending it for a customer’s dog. When the customer asks if the dog will have fun with the toy, the employee says assuredly, “We did!”

The spot, which broke last month as the latest execution in Petco’s “Extra care” campaign, “is addressing the emotional bonds between people and their pets,” said Stan Latacha, Petco’s vp of marketing and advertising. It’s aimed at people who “treat pets more as children then just animals,” said Howie Cohen, chief creative officer at independent The Phelps Group, Santa Monica, Calif.

And that’s a large and growing target. Companies from snack makers to high-end fashion houses are scrambling to corner the “pet parents” market. Spending by U.S. consumers on their 153 million dogs and cats has doubled in the past decade, to $34.4 billion last year, making the pet industry the country’s seventh-largest retail segment—60 percent larger than the $20 billion human-toy industry, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The money individual consumers spend annually on accessories for their furry and finned friends—which include everything from chewy toys to jewel-studded collars—has been growing rapidly, from $97 in 2001 to $215 in 2004, according to luxury consultant Unity Marketing.

“There have been tremendous changes in the industry,” said Vicki Lynne Morgan, president of Pet Market Consultants in Clinton, N.J. Rather than limiting pets to grocery-aisle necessities, such as food, leashes and litter, owners are seeking out products that mirror what they consume. Pups can snack on Bowie Wowie-brand refrigerated cookie dough and Woofy-Pop microwave popcorn. “There’s a humanization of pets today,” Morgan said. “There are more products that people can relate to … packaging that appeals to people.”

The nation’s No. 1 pet retailer, Phoenix-based Petsmart, reported 2004 sales of $3.4 billion, up 12 percent. (A new campaign for Petsmart from Publicis Groupe’s Leo Burnett is expected to break late this summer.) Petco, headquartered in San Diego, also reported a 12 percent increase in sales, to $1.7 billion in 2004. Both retailers spend about $30 million a year in measured media.

Even pet-food makers are shifting ad focus from value and nutrients to the more emotional side of pet ownership. A recent outdoor execution for Masterfoods’ Pedigree dog food from Omnicom Group’s TBWA\ Chiat\Day shows a huge, napping puppy; another has a golden retriever playfully peering out over traffic. Text on both reads “Dogs rule”—and the only reference to Pedigree is a small, lower-right corner image.

Dog food advertising is usually “all about science and the rational benefits of the food,” said Chris Adams, copywriter for the campaign. “People love dogs like their own children, and no pet food company was really nailing that.”

Margaret Keene, TBWA\C\D art director on the Pedigree campaign, agreed. “Everybody talks about target audiences,” she said. “This might be the greatest target audience we’ve ever had.”

“Pets offer companionship, protection, stability, a sense of security, unconditional love,” said Morgan. And spending reflects the lengths people are willing to go for their loved ones. “It’s almost a recession-proof industry,” she said.

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