Game Change for Petcare: Why branding becomes more important.

By Andreas Schambeck & Marcel Verhaaf

Game Change for Petcare:  Why branding becomes more important.

Andreas Schambeck, Business Development Director at SGK, recently revisited the pet care market and shared his findings in his article "Game Change for Pet Care". The industry is currently experiencing a slowdown in growth, forming a kind of "new normal". Marcel Verhaaf, Executive Creative Director at SGK, a mastermind of strategy and branding, shares his insights with Andreas about the future of the industry.

What is your current impression of the pet care industry?
The pet care industry is more exciting than ever for designers and brand strategists. We have never seen so many new, surprising products and startup brands. Initially, the category was dominated by a few big brands and very simple label designs. Traditional category cues are now supplemented by many new ones. This category has quickly matured, from low to high interest. You shouldn't judge solely by what's on the shelves in the average supermarket. The constant category growth is mainly occurring online, driven by a younger generation of digital natives who also see pets as family members. An interesting statistic is about Generation Z, where less than 50% buy pet food and treats in supermarkets.

The defining elements of the pet care industry have changed, and the relationship between pets and their owners has become highly emotional. What does this mean for pet products and services?
Decades ago, pet food pack design had a very functional style. A photo of the animal, sometimes a photo of the product, and product flavor were sufficient to help consumers find their product. No lifestyle cues, very basic desirability, and no impulse purchases at the shelf. Later, the reassurance of good pet health defined pack design. The environment now is very different; there is high interest in their little "family members" health and diet, more allocated budget, and higher self (pet) indulgence. A few examples of the changing relationship are visible in brand names like Buddy Biscuits, Miss Purfect, Dog’s Love, and Best Feline Friend.

The market has grown enormously over the years with an additional tailwind from the pandemic. What highlights or trends do you see?
A typical product fitting the Zeitgeist is, for example, the Super Snouts Pumpkin Latte Supplement with Goat’s Milk for Dogs & Cats. There is a wide variety of seasonal products/gifts for Valentine’s Day, Cativia probiotic cat milk, and Furbaby seasoning.

There seem to be several signs that the industry will prioritize brand management more in the future. Would you agree with this?
Indeed, we're witnessing a surge in start-up brands across various industries, all vying for attention with similar innovations such as organic, sustainable, and health-focused products. Initially, sustainability seemed like a guaranteed market share in a landscape dominated by non-sustainable offerings. However, the market is now saturated with sustainability-driven start-ups, competing directly with established brands. For instance, the pet food sector boasts numerous dog ice cream products, where availability and brand influence consumer choice more than flavor preference.

Buyers are often very unfaithful, especially in the pet sector. This fact has been reinforced by increased price sensitivity and the overall wider range of products on offer. What role can brand image, positioning, and differentiation play here?
Consumers tend to purchase more impulsively with products like treats and toys but are more loyal with specialty diet foods. For impulse purchases, brands need to have breakthrough and desirable designs. For diet projects, a strong brand and reassurance in design (through product claims, storytelling, and quality ingredients) are needed.

What changes do you see in terms of visual identity and brand design?
Good product photography, part of the visual identity, has always been important for big pet food manufacturer-brands. Now, we see some brands actually spending extra effort with their photography to generate true appetite appeal (for the shoppers, not for pets).

The big brands have developed strong brand assets. Unique to pet food is potentially a specific pet in a certain style to be used as a brand asset. For example, Gourmet, Whiskas, and Frolic have a type of animal they always apply in a recognizable way. The golden retriever of Pedigree is generic and used by many other brands, but this is compensated by the unique brand colour. Felix has a unique illustration style.

What trends are observed in the retail sector regarding the assortment and design of pet products, and how are retailers adapting to changing consumer preferences?
Retailers have expanded their product assortments beyond generic offerings to include specialized options such as adult, junior, senior, sterilized, and sensitive products. Some have even introduced luxury ranges to enhance quality perception. While retailers like Carrefour, Tesco, and Delahaize maintain traditional pack designs, others like Edeka adopt more playful styles, resonating with online-centric trends. Conad's "Petfriends" label reflects the evolving pet-owner relationship. Overall, there's room for retailers to embrace design trends favored by Millennials and Gen Z, who now constitute nearly half of all pet owners.

Do you see differences for the different buyer groups or for the different generations?
Different generations have distinct design preferences. Gen Z tends to reject category norms and seeks brand reassurance online rather than on packaging. Millennials lean towards a modern, artisanal aesthetic, while Gen X consumers prioritize quality and stick to preferred brands. Despite lower brand loyalty among younger generations, pet care sees higher retention due to the priority placed on pets. However, generational splits are not strictly black and white, with many Gen X individuals embracing Gen Z mindsets. Regardless of age, each generation contributes to evolving design styles, eventually shaping trends for broader audiences.

eCommerce has gained enormous momentum in recent years and is a key sales and communication channel for the industry. What relevance does the digital shelf have, particularly in the context of omnichannel strategies?
The digital shelf is not limited to physical shelf size. Therefore, more brands and products can showcase their products online, especially with Millennials and Gen Z who often start their shopping journey there first. It also extends beyond traditional shelves to include non-shelf formats such as the subscription model, exemplified by services like Bark Box. In the context of omnichannel strategies, the digital shelf plays a crucial role in providing consistent and seamless brand experiences across various touchpoints, integrating online and offline channels to meet the evolving expectations of modern consumers.

Packaging is still an important touchpoint, despite all the digitalization. What does packaging have to be able to do today?
The same as for any non-pet brand: create distinctiveness. Develop Temptainability (the equal combination of sustainability and desirability). Decide on the more than 25 ways of stand-out in shelf. Think about online-offline shelf. Consider appetite appeal. Potentially even develop an iconic pack design that is timeless and can easily be tuned to evolving trend styles.


About Marcel Verhaaf
Marcel Verhaaf has more than 30 years of experience as a packaging/brand designer, creative director and former agency owner. He is also known for his books, exhibitions and special projects. Nicknamed “doctor iconic” or “the professor”, because of his extensive knowledge of any aspect of branded packaging. Marcel his own designs have won many creative awards , like Red Dot, Vertex, Pentawards, The Dieline, ADCN and many more. Currently he is executive creative director at SGK Amsterdam and jury member of Packaging Europe’s Sustainability awards and Coolest Dutch brands.

About Andreas Schambeck
Andreas is experienced in the world of branding, marketing communications and in particular the entire packaging graphics supply chain. As part of the business development team, he brings over 30 years of experience from various industries and target markets. He primarily supports brand owners and retail clients in organising their marketing ecosystem in the best possible way to be even more agile, efficient and consistent.