A Match Made in Heaven

Pet product manufacturers are teaming up with stars to create and promote their wares, but does it really have an impact at retail?


In our fame-obsessed world, it makes perfect sense that companies large, small and in-between seek out celebrities to help sell their wares. Celebrity endorsements can be one of the quickest, most effective ways to generate consumer buzz about a new product—or even a well-established one. 

But how many people would rush to the store to buy a dog food simply because Kim Kardashian claimed to use it? How about a cat toy endorsed by Alec Baldwin? A Justin Bieber cat food, anyone? 

The truth is that a celebrity endorsement is no short cut to success.

Celebrity-focused product branding only works when you have the right person at the right time connected to a quality product that strongly resonates with shoppers. Yet, it seems several pet product brands have managed to do just that. According to pet industry insiders, productive collaborations between manufacturers and household names who are credible, respected and well-liked can result in star-powered products that soar at retail. That is, of course, only if the product is worth the buzz it creates. 

Over the past decade, a number of celebrities, driven either by their love of animals or the opportunity to generate additional income—or both—have leveraged their fame and influence to promote pet product brands they believe in. Some serve as media spokespeople for their chosen brands, while others are more deeply involved, delving into design or investing financially into the company. 

However, many years before these celebrity affiliations became commonplace in the industry, one of America’s favorite dads broke new ground with his entry into the pet food market. In 1989, Dick Van Patten, the actor most notably known for his role as Tom Bradford in the 1970s hit television show Eight Is Enough, co-founded Natural Balance pet food. Although the show ceased production in 1981, the years leading up to Natural Balance’s market debut did nothing to erode his public image, and the brand benefited from the warm and fuzzy feelings TV viewers still had for the actor.

“His charm and good nature resonated with people both young and old and enabled him to transfer his warm persona into the face of a trusted pet brand,” says Alice Kim, director of marketing for Natural Balance Pet Foods, Inc. “His desire to bring the very best nutrition to dogs and cats along with his name recognition both worked together to grow the brand because he was a public figure who pet parents truly liked.”

More than 25 years after its debut, the brand continues to grow, regularly adding to its product portfolio of formulas that reflect the latest trends and research on pets’ nutritional needs. Van Patten, also known for his animal welfare advocacy, died this past June, yet naturally, his face still graces the packaging on the brand’s products. And Kim points out that the quote “help me help animals” is printed on the back every product, illustrating his lifelong goal to help abused and neglected animals. 

Since Natural Balance’s introduction on the market, quite a few household names have emerged on the pet food scene in various capacities. Among the most notable are talk show hosts Rachael Ray and Ellen DeGeneres.

Rachael Ray’s Nutrish pet food brand debuted in 2008—the result of a partnership between the celebrity cook and author and Ainsworth Pet Nutrition, a company that manufacturers several pet product brands, including Back To Basics and Dad’s Pet Care.  

 “A colleague of ours at Ainsworth is a huge fan of Rachael Ray,” says Steve Joyce, vice president of marketing for the company. “While watching her daytime talk show one morning, she heard Rachael talking about her ‘fur-baby’ Isaboo and her love for all animals. At that moment, she thought about how great a partnership between us and Rachael would be and actually emailed Rachael about it.”

To the company’s delight, Ray was indeed interested, and the brand was developed during her very first meeting with Ainsworth. It was an obvious match in which both partners had something to offer—Ainsworth contributed the means to develop and manufacture quality pet foods, and Ray brought to the table millions of loyal fans, many of whom love their pets as much as Ray loves hers. However, while her fame has undoubtedly been an asset to the brand, Joyce contends that merely being famous would not have been enough to catapult a new product to success. 

“I think fame and name recognition have helped, but a number of celebrities have fame and recognition,” he says. “What makes Rachael different is that she is all about food—real ingredients and real cooking.”

It comes down to credibility and reputation. People who have been using Ray’s recipes for years and trust her as a source of knowledge about food are likely to be open to trying the Nutrish brand for their pets. The brand has also been strategically marketed for mass and grocery retailers, with the intention of filling a niche for premium-quality products in that retail channel—a decision that may have contributed to its success in the retail. “Retailers benefit because Nutrish products offer benefits that were previously only found in specialty stores, like our Zero Grain line of products, which are real meat-first and grain- and gluten-free,” Joyce says.


Specialty Super Stars

While Ray’s Nutrish has focused on supermarket and big-box store sales, actress and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres has been giving the pet specialty retail channel the star treatment. DeGeneres immersed herself in the pet industry eight years ago when she became part owner of a small, established pet food brand, Halo, Purely for Pets. 

“While brands such as American Express, Lifewater, Cover Girl and others might pay Ellen millions to be associated with their products—and of course, Ellen is well worth it—Halo is actually co-owned by Ellen,” says David Yaskulka, vice president of marketing and communications for Halo, Purely for Pets. “She’s a believer, not a paid spokesperson. And it shows in the power of her messaging. Ellen says, ‘I love my pets so much that I’ll only give them Halo.’ It’s a different tone. The nature of this relationship is from the heart.”

According to Yaskulka, DeGeneres has vigorously promoted Halo, Purely for Pets, achieving her goal of “getting Halo on the map,” while also raising public awareness of proper pet nutrition. She may also have motivated some of her pet-owning fans to upgrade their pet food. “Without question, Ellen’s TV, radio, print and social campaigns for Halo have inspired her fans to read and understand ingredients,” he says.  “Many have shifted from less-expensive brands at the supermarket to finding Halo at pet specialty.”

The talk show host’s active and highly visible promotion of Halo, Purely for Pets demonstrates what could be a powerful advantage over competing products: the ability to leverage her fame to get the brand’s message out to as many consumers possible. After all, her marketing reach is substantial. Perhaps more importantly, however, DeGeneres—as a person and as a brand—is someone many people trust. And as marketing tools go, any celebrity or spokesperson’s stamp of approval can be only as effective as their personal brand is strong, resonant and trustworthy.

The establishment of this form of trust was certainly key in the momentous success of the kathy ireland brand. Founded by former model Kathy Ireland—who appeared in Sports Illustrated magazine’s swimsuit editions for 13 consecutive years and graced the cover of its bestselling swimsuit issue to date—the lifestyle brand branches into a variety of retail categories from sleepwear and jewelry to furniture and lighting.

Ireland’s tenure in retail dates back to 1993, when the former model made her first foray into product manufacturing. Today, her company kathy ireland Worldwide (kiWW) reportedly generates annual merchandise sales of $2 billion. While that level of success cannot be credited to any one factor, Ireland’s stardom was surely a contributing factor, at least early on. These days, however, many consumers have come to know Ireland as a businesswoman, and her brand, with its massive retail presence, is proven and trusted by legions of consumers.

Now, the recently launched Love Ones pet brand—the result of a collaboration between kiWW and Worldwise, the parent company behind a growing portfolio of brands including SmartyKat, TrustyPup, goDog and SHERPA—is putting Ireland’s brand equity to good use. The kathy ireland Loved Ones collection, which includes pet bedding, feeding and watering items, collars, leashes and toys, capitalizes on her company’s proven prowess with home décor and furniture, with a heavy emphasis on combining style and functionality.

“For consumers, Kathy Ireland’s name is synonymous with effortless elegance and success,” says Kevin Fick, CEO of Worldwise. “They identify with her as a busy mom of both two- and four-footed children. They trust that the products that bear her name will help them connect with and care for their loved ones.”

Putting aside their fame for a moment, many of these celeb-turned-pet product gurus also share another attribute that makes them particularly appealing and relatable to pet owners. Pet advocacy is often an important or central component to celebrities’ pet business endeavors. 

For instance, Joyce points out that Ray donates her personal proceeds from Nutrish to organizations devoted to helping animals. DeGeneres also wears the hat of animal advocate as a board member of the Halo Pet Foundation, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about responsible pet ownership, eliminating animal abuse and reducing the overpopulation of uncared-for pets. Halo, Purely for Pets also donates a minimum of half of its sales revenue to the foundation and to providing food donations to shelters, according to the company. 


For a Good Cause
Another well-known celebrity on the pet advocacy scene over the years has been network news correspondent Jill Rappaport, who recently teamed up with pet product manufacturer Dog Gone Smart. Together, they launched the Rubie Roadie—a round, canvas pet bed—as part of Rappaport’s Rescued Me Collection of pet products. The line is meant to help raise awareness about the plight of the millions of pets in today’s animal shelters. 

“Dog Gone Smart shares my passion for rescue and adoption and together with this truly wonderful bed we have launched, we know it will have an important impact,” says Rappaport, who was named American Pet Products Association’s (APPA) and Pet Industry Distributors Association’s (PIDA) 2012 recipient of the Excellence in Journalism and Outstanding Contributions to the Pet Industry Award.

Dog Gone Smart CEO Chris Onthank describes Rappaport as “the face of rescue in this country” and sees the partnership as a prime opportunity to use the company’s success to support the mission of helping homeless animals. “Jill brings a tremendous amount of credibility to Dog Gone Smart’s efforts to give back to animals in need,” Onthank says. “By partnering with Jill, the pet industry recognizes our commitment to raising awareness for pet rescue as a noble one.”

Pet owners, too, recognize a good cause when they see one. Animal advocacy strikes a nerve with many pet owners, for whom a call to help animals in need soundly resonates. Still, for independent pet specialty retailers, the bottom line remains the bottom line. They have to determine where and how these product lines fit into their universe, and since shelf space is limited—and thus precious—retailers need to stock goods that do more than create a short-lived buzz or just a passing customer interest. They have to sell. Fortunately, this point is not lost on manufacturers. 

For example, Petmate’s recent collaboration with famed cat behaviorist and trainer Jackson Galaxy is intended to serve the dual purpose of selling more cat products at retail, while spreading the word to pet owners that cats have unique needs that can be met through play. 

For Galaxy, the host and executive producer of Animal Planet’s hit TV show My Cat From Hell, Petmate’s Jackson Galaxy Collection of cat toys is a labor of love that serves his overriding mission to encourage responsible pet ownership and help keep cats happy, well adjusted and out of shelters. The collection includes interactive and solo play toys, scratchers, kickers, wands, tunnels, comfort bedding and more, and addresses natural cat behaviors—hunt, catch, kill, eat, groom and sleep.

“At the end of the day, we want to prove that these products are just as important to your cat as a leash and collar is to your dog,” Jackson says. “In their world, play equals prey; cat play is a necessity, not a luxury.”

Brittany Green, assistant product manager of toys for Petmate, says Jackson’s expertise and insight were central to the line’s development, helping the company to “conceptualize high-quality products that were both fun and meaningful to cats and cat parents.”

The quality of the products, combined with Galaxy’s high standing with the cat-owning public, makes the collection particularly retail worthy, she adds, saying that it also fills a void on the market for products that meet cat’s unique play needs. “When a brand partners with a celebrity like Jackson Galaxy, who believes in the product created and stands behind the research, retailers will have an easier time selling the product,” she says. “The Jackson Galaxy collection provides his own tips and facts on the packaging for consumers to gain more insight as to what the brand is about and why the products will benefit their pets. The level of involvement that Jackson has on the products, right down to the packaging, allows for retailers to sell the product more effectively.”

Yet, even with so much star power at play, most manufacturers agree that the real stars of the show need to be the products themselves. Each line must stand on its  own merits, delivering on what the packaging promises and solving pet owners’ everyday problems and meeting their everyday needs.

Fick says while Kathy’s name recognition can open doors and get consumers’ attention, the products themselves need to live up to consumer expectations and meet their demands. “A pet product line associated with a celebrity can help those products stand out in a field of increasingly similar items; however, it’s not enough to slap a celebrity’s name on something and call it a day,” he says. “Worldwise worked closely with the kathy ireland Worldwide team to ensure the products are truly different from others you’ll find on the market.”

Yaskulka agrees that the products need to earn the buzz they create, adding to that the assertion that retailers themselves are largely responsible for consumers’ awareness of new products and their subsequent success at retail. “Can you guess the percentage of Halo users who say Ellen was their No. 1 influence in choosing to feed Halo?” he says. “It’s less than one percent. By a wide margin, ‘personal research’ was the No. 1 influence. And pet specialty store personnel are a huge part of that.”  

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