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Pet Product Marketing

With record numbers of people adopting shelter animals during COVID-19, Bigeye discusses innovative pet product marketing with Sarah Salva of H&C Animal Health.

IN CLEAR FOCUS: Record numbers of people adopted shelter animals as pets during COVID-19, driving demand for pet products. Guest Sarah Salva is the Director of Marketing Brand Development for Bigeye’s client, H&C Animal Health. Sarah shares H&C’s pet product marketing and development process, discusses why cat and dog parents need to be treated differently, and how important marketing research is in designing product packaging and producing advertising campaigns that resonate with pet parents.  

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Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode ofIN CLEAR FOCUS:

Sarah Salva: So dog and cat owners – they’re very different people. So something that you say that works really well with dog owners can completely backfire on you with cat owners. It’s sort of the same sensitivity that you might expect to see when you’re marketing products that are made for human babies.

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising, produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello? I’m your host, Adrian Tennant VP of insights. It’s Bigeye. An audience-focused, creative-driven, full-service advertising agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond. Thank you for joining us. The American Pet Products Association, or APPA for short, reports that Americans spent nearly $1 billion on pets and pet care in 2020. The vast majority of the spending was on dogs and cats, but last year also saw increases across the board as families acquired more fish, reptiles, birds, and small mammals as companions during COVID-19 lockdowns. Today, a majority of pet owners consider their pets to be members of the family – so much so that you’ll often hear the phrase, “pet parent”, rather than owner. The global industry which supplies pet food, products, and services is responsible for this modern view of pet parenting. Humans have lived with animals since the last Ice Age. For most of our history, dogs were used for hunting while cats controlled vermin. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution, which brought advances in health and economic prosperity, that we started to view these animals as pets, even though dogs and cats still lived outside for the most part. But in the 1880s, flea and tick shampoo was introduced for the first time, which meant dogs could come in doors and become part of that households – marking the birth of the pets supply industry. And with the invention of kitty litter in 1947, felines followed their canine companions indoors, and into our homes and families. Our guest this week is especially well-versed in today’s global pet industry. Sarah Salva is the Director of Marketing and Brand Development at H&C Animal Health, headquartered in Parker, Colorado. Prior to her current role, Sarah worked on product innovation at the Whiteway Foods Company, which includes the Horizon brand of organic products, and as Brand Marketing Manager for Open Road Snacks. Sarah graduated Magna Cum Laude from Texas Tech University with a specialization in animal science and agribusiness. Sarah, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Sarah Salva: Thank you.

Adrian Tennant: Do you consider yourself a pet owner or a pet parent?

Sarah Salva: I am a pet parent, for sure. So especially during COVID, I spend all my days working from home with my Aussie, Vera. And I often wonder when she’s going to start talking back to me!

Adrian Tennant: You studied animal science and agribusiness. So have you always had an interest in animals?

Sarah Salva: Absolutely. I originally wanted to be a vet. But I also loved my business and marketing classes. So, you know, throughout the years I did a little bit of both, but then I found the best of both worlds here at H&C.

Adrian Tennant: So, can you tell us a bit about H&C Animal Health’s founding story and what the company does?

Sarah Salva: Sure. The company was founded by Chuck Latham, who has had a passion for animals since childhood. He grew up among a family of veterinarians and, like me, found himself choosing a path between animal medicine and business. So with H&C he successfully bridged the gap. H&C focuses on bringing innovative vet products to retail, to make caring for your pets easier. We have a very animal-first approach, which means everything we develop works and is safe.

Adrian Tennant: Now tell us a little bit about the distribution side of the business versus the products that you’re developing yourselves.

Sarah Salva: We used to mainly focus on working with vet manufacturers to bring over their products, from the vet side into retail. So we took a lot of products that used to be only available in your vet’s office and brought them to stores like PetSmart and Petco. And then we started kind of the other side of the business, which is really product development. So we work with vet formulators and just a lot of vet professionals out there, to help us bring very efficacious and very innovative products over to retail.

Adrian Tennant: Now would we know some of the brands that you’ve distributed?

Sarah Salva: Yeah, you would! So a very popular line that we still distribute is the Virbac Dental portfolio. Those are C.E.T.® (Clean Every Time), VEGGIEDENT® FR3SH®, and they have some enzymatic rawhides. Just a very easy, effective way to keep your dog’s teeth clean.

Adrian Tennant: Sarah, what does your role as Director of Marketing Brand Development at H&C entail?

Sarah Salva: So I’m focused on working on the vet-developed side. So those are the brands that we create and we own, and, you know, work with really great agencies, such as Bigeye to bring to market. We really care about first the product has to work. But then it also has to be, you know, a consumer-friendly kind of brand. So a lot of times in the vet industry, you don’t really see that because you have the backing of the vet telling the pet parent that, you know, this is going to be good for their parent, but so we focus on putting the same type of product into, you know, friendlier packaging.

Adrian Tennant: So what led you from agribusiness to marketing as a career?

Sarah Salva: Oh, that’s kind of a long story, but I think it’s mostly luck. I left the animal world for a bit, was marketing coffee creamer, and then popcorn. But then when I met Chuck, I knew I had really found the sweet spot for me. So it just really brought everything together. I hadn’t been in the animal business in you know, eight or so years and with Chuck, it was kind of an opportunity to really get back in touch with those vet professionals that I used to, you know, follow and admire, while bringing my own marketing spin onto the products. So it was just very much, the perfect, perfect job.

Adrian Tennant: Sarah, prior to H&C Animal Health, you held product innovation and brand marketing positions. What, if any, lessons from those experiences, have you applied to your current role?

Sarah Salva: So the roles at the larger companies really helped me form disciplines and processes that you really need to launch new brands. So at H&C, being smaller, we’re a lot more agile and able to pivot to meet, changing consumer demands, while also really bringing in that process-driven development process.

Adrian Tennant: Spending on pets has grown by about 4 to 5 percent a year since the Great Recession of 2008. What’s been driving this kind of growth?

Sarah Salva: Well, as you mentioned earlier, sort of that humanization of pets has really happened over the past 80 years. But recently we’ve been spending a lot more time with our pets. So, you know, COVID aside, over the past 20 years, I know that my kind of first family was my dog, you know before I had a husband, before I had kids. And I think a lot of people are trending in that direction. So pet brands have really had to keep up with that and offer more products to keep consumers engaged and keep their pets happy and healthy.

Adrian Tennant: You’re planning to introduce a new line of calming products for cats this year. Could you take us through the process of new product development?

Sarah Salva: Sure. So we like to really start by identifying a problem that pet parents are having and then creating the solution. So, you know, when we looked at the products being offered to cats, we saw a big gap in cat calming where companies were offering full solutions. So from, you know, calming pheromones to calming chews to a travel spray, pet parents really need to have it all. Every cat is different, every dog is different. So yeah, when we introduce a new line of products for cats or dogs, we start with consumer research to really identify the problem that’s out there. And then we take it in and we figure out, you know, how are we going to talk to these consumers to really get them to resonate with the product and really trust us? Cause that’s something that matters a lot to us – that we’re not only offering these really great solutions for pet parents that we also are kind of in the industry as this expert and known as the company that really cares about your pet. So after we know what products we want to launch, we work with vet formulators and developers to find the technology and the ingredients out there. We do testing to make sure that they work to make sure that in this case, the cat really likes the product. So with cats, you have to focus a lot on palatability and acceptability. Cats are very finicky, very picky. So we spend a lot of time, you know, in taste tests and just make sure they are cat-approved. And then we go through packaging and the website, and really, you know, focus on the communication. Cause that’s really important.

Adrian Tennant: So Sarah, for the cat calming line, can you tell us about the brand name?

Sarah Salva: Sure. So the line is called bSerene. It is a line of cat calming products. So we have a long-lasting pheromone, a pheromone plus catnip spray, and then in the summer we’ll be coming out with a line of cat chews.

Adrian Tennant: And any plans for a similar line for canine companions?

Sarah Salva: Yes. So that is also in the works and can’t spill the beans too much on it yet, but look for something early 2022.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message.

Seth Segura: I’m Seth Segura, VP and Creative Director at Bigeye. Every week, IN CLEAR FOCUS addresses topics that impact our work as creative professionals. At Bigeye, we always put audiences first. For every engagement, we commit to really understanding our clients’ prospects and customers. Through our own primary research, we capture valuable data about people’s attitudes, behaviors, and motivations. These insights inform our strategy and guide our creative briefs. Clients see them brought to life in inspiring, imaginative brand-building and persuasive activation campaigns. If you’d like to put Bigeye’s audience-focused creative communications to work for your brand, please contact us. Email info@bigeyeagency.com. Bigeye. Reaching the Right People, in the Right Place, at the Right Time.

Adrian Tennant: How do you identify?

Voices: Female, male, genderfluid, cisgender, genderqueer, nonbinary, transfeminine.

Adrian Tennant: Society is constantly changing and evolving. To understand how Americans feel about gender identity and expression, Bigeye undertook a national study involving over 2000 adult consumers. Over half of those aged 18 to 39 believe that traditional binary labels of male and female are outdated and instead see gender as a spectrum. Our exclusive report, Gender: Beyond The Binary reveals how beliefs across different generations influence the purchase of toys, clothes, and consumer packaged goods. To download the full report, go to bigeye.agency/gender.  

Voices: Nonconforming, transgender, two-spirit, transmasculine, genderfluid.

Adrian Tennant: Gender: Beyond The Binary.

Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Sarah Silva, Director of Marketing and Brand Development at H&C Animal Health. I know you take consumer research very seriously. Have you learned anything about pet owners over the past five years or so that really surprised you or led to an insight that helps solve a marketing challenge?

Sarah Salva: In my past careers, we’ve really focused on purchase intent as a benchmark when we test new products. But lately, we’ve really started to focus on, especially for this cat calming line, how consumers are reacting to the way that we’re speaking to them through the packaging and other marketing vehicles. So dog and cat owners – they’re very different people. So something that you say that works really well with dog owners can completely backfire on you with cat owners. So it’s sort of the same sensitivity that you might expect to see when you’re marketing products that are made for human babies. Moms are very protective, you know, very sensitive in a really good way. So you have to be really careful that you’re really getting on the same level and you’re not really turning somebody off because it doesn’t matter what the purchase intent is if nobody’s even going to pick up the product in the first place.

Adrian Tennant: Now when it’s a new product entry, as it will be with the cat calming line, do you typically like to start with quantitative research, to get a sense of the size of the market and then follow up with qualitative?

Sarah Salva: So it really depends on where we are in the process. So I really like you know, qualitative when I’m talking about what are the problems out there and just kind of getting that brainstorming of, what do the cat owners really need in their lives? Or where are the pain points, you know, and their relationship with their cat. I think when it comes to purchase intent and pricing sweet spot, you know, and then testing the concepts, quantitative is a really good way to do it. During COVID we have done a hundred percent quantitative just because, you know, we’ve tested out qualitative through Zoom for a CAS and you just don’t get the same connectivity that you would sitting in the same room with people. So there are limitations right now.

Adrian Tennant: You mentioned that cat owners and dog owners can be very different. How has that played out in your career working with both products for cats and dogs?

Sarah Salva: You know, it’s funny because it’s hard to make that mental switch. If you’ve been spending a year developing dog products that you’ve seen a lot of success, you automatically want to apply those learnings to the cat products, but you really have to kind of just wash the slate clean and almost start over a little bit. I always knew cat owners and dog owners, you know, it’s always kind of a running joke that dog people and cat people, but they really are different, different lifestyles, different hobbies, and that’s just something you really have to pay attention to.

Adrian Tennant: I mentioned research from the American Pet Products Association at the beginning of this episode. Every year, the APPA holds the Global Pet Expo – the world’s largest annual trade show devoted to pet products. This year, it’s moving to a fully digital experience due to COVID-19. How are you planning to adapt your company’s event to a virtual forum?

Sarah Salva: So with the absence of having in-person connections this year, we are certainly having to adapt our approach, but we’re still focused on having valuable one-on-one time with retailers and development partners. But the good news is, even though the virtual booth is only open for a week, we’re not limited to celebrating at Global Pet and making those connections in just that one week. So typically, you know, you’ve got three nights that you’ve got to plan your kind of engagements, and now we’re getting to kind of celebrate the whole month of March to launch our new product. H&C has always been known to make a really big splash at Global from our booth to the Happy Hours to who we’re bringing in to see the products. But you know, this year will be no different. And we have some really big plans in the works that we hope to be able to announce soon.

Adrian Tennant: Andrea Laurent Simpson, a sociologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas is the author of a book entitled, Just Like Family: How Companion Animals Joined The Household. Her view is that in the US, pets are increasingly serving as surrogate children for Millennials who can’t afford to start families or for single people who forego having children. Sarah, do you agree with her assessment?

Sarah Salva: I definitely agree that that’s part of the equation. I know that my husband and I had two dogs long before we even thought about having kids. So it taught us a lot about, you know, kind of our lifestyle and types of things that we like to do together with our dogs, but also the limitations of, you know, not just being two adults, kind of free to do whatever we want. We still had shared responsibilities. I think the other part that I really love about the Millennials really bringing pets in is that they really aren’t breed-focused. So I’ve really loved seeing the surge in the shelter adoptions, among younger people.

Adrian Tennant: In 22 US cities, the term “pet owner” has been replaced with “guardian” in municipal codes, suggesting that pets are increasingly viewed like people. So do you think we’re on the verge of seeing civil rights for cats and dogs?

Sarah Salva: You know, maybe. I’m not so sure that dogs and cats should get a vote for President, but if it further protects them from abuse or harm, then I’m all for it. I have definitely wished that I could count my dog as a dependent on my taxes though!

Adrian Tennant: A $1.6 billion segment of the US insurance market, pet insurance is growing at about 17% a year. Now, despite its rapid growth, only about 2.5 million US pets are insured – of which about 80% are dogs, but that’s still less than 3% of all pets in total, according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association. Now given that 30% of pets in Sweden and 23% in the UK are insured, Sarah, why do you think Americans have been slow to adopt insurance for pets?

Sarah Salva: You know, I don’t think that it’s very well marketed actually. You know, I’ve been a dog owner since the day I graduated from college and I didn’t really know that it existed until starting my job at H&C which is an amazing company that offers a discount for pet insurance. So I really think that, much like cat calming products, other countries have really done a really good job at marketing this and making it kind of a norm. So, you know, when you think about adopting a dog or a cat, for us, our first step is go to the vet, find a vet, but I think that the first step, at shelters and stuff around the world is hooking the pet parent up with an insurance company.

Adrian Tennant: Yeah. Well, originally from the UK, I can tell you the vets and the insurance companies kind of work with one another. So yeah, much more acceptable over that. Sarah. How optimistic are you about the pet industry’s prospects for growth over the next few years?

Sarah Salva: You know, I think that it’s only going to continue to grow. We don’t see any sign that it’s going to decline or level off. I’m continually surprised looking at other companies and the great innovations they have coming out. Whenever you think, what else can we possibly offer to our dog or cat? Every year we see a ton of new stuff, so people are just gonna continue to, buy, buy, buy, because they love their pets.

Adrian Tennant: Hmm. What have you bought for your pets in the last month?

Sarah Salva: We have been very focused on dental in the last few months. Kind of got a little slap on the wrist from our vet last month that I wasn’t brushing vigorous teeth enough. So we have invested in new toothbrushes and toothpaste to make sure that it’s something that she actually enjoys. This is a shameless plug, but we have found that she likes the poultry flavor toothpaste from Virbac in case anybody is looking for recommendations. So it’s really been a focus on how we make dental health more like a treat for her and not something that she’s going to dread.

Adrian Tennant: Have you ever signed up to a pet subscription box service?

Sarah Salva: I have, so we have tested out Barkbox. H&C actually used to have one called Wag Healthy Club. You could find it on Amazon. We don’t offer that option any more, but it was a really good way to get kind of samples out to people’s hands of different vet-quality products. But I love subscription boxes. I think it’s a really fun surprise every month.

Adrian Tennant: For anyone listening, that’s either a student of marketing or has recently graduated, what advice would you give them for finding their first position in a marketing role?

Sarah Salva: I think find a product or service that you’re truly passionate about. It’s a lot easier to market to consumers when you have something in common with them. So, you know, whether this is turning a hobby into a career or a chance with a really small startup,  that’s doing something really cool, if you really enjoy the product, it’s just so much easier to get behind it.

Adrian Tennant: Away from work, what inspires you? Are you a reader, a podcast listener, a music fan?

Sarah Salva: We as a family – we really love being outside. So we play a lot of golf. We hike, we spend time in our garden. You know, no matter the season though, I love to incorporate wine into all of my hobbies. So I guess you could say that that’s another thing that inspires me.

Adrian Tennant: Now I understand that after five years with H&C Animal Health, you’re moving to a new role with a brand that I think we all know pretty well.

Sarah Salva: Yeah, it was a really tough decision to make. I have had such good experiences over the past few years with Chuck and the rest of the team here, but I have a fantastic opportunity outside of pets with Scotts Miracle-Gro. So I’m very excited to continue growing and learning and to also be, you know, marketing for products, in my other passion, which is gardening.

Adrian Tennant: Sarah, if IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners would like to learn more about the brands you’ve been working on at H&C Animal Health, where can they find information?

Sarah Salva: Check us out on Instagram @HCAnimalHealth, @DailyDosePet, or coming soon, @ScientiaPet. 

Adrian Tennant: Sarah, thank you very much, indeed, for being our guest this week on IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Sarah Salva: Thank you for having me.

Adrian Tennant: Coming up next time on IN CLEAR FOCUS:

Jessica Neyer: Telehealth is interesting. Everyone was trying to understand “is this just  a fad?” And now they’re realizing how incredibly easy telehealth makes certain appointments with your physician and they want it now, they’re demanding it.

Adrian Tennant: That’s an interview with Jessica Neyer, VP of Strategy with Mend, a telemedicine company making a big announcement on next week’s IN CLEAR FOCUS. Thanks to my guest this week, Sarah Salva, Director of Marketing and Brand Development at H&C Animal Health. You’ll find links to the resources we discussed today on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at bigeyeagency.com under “Insights.” Just click on the button marked “Podcast.” If you enjoyed this episode, please consider subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Audible, YouTube, or your preferred podcast player. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.

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