Changing with the Times

Steve King, CEO of the American Pet Products Association, discusses the ongoing evolution of his organization and the pet industry, overall.



It has been about a year since you took over as CEO of the American Pet Products Association (APPA), though you’ve been involved in the industry for over 30 years.  From your perspective, what is the state of the overall pet industry? The pet industry has enjoyed pretty steady growth over a long period of time, and that’s reflective of two things. First, there’s the overall state of the economy in the U.S., which has been strong for the better part of the past decade. Since we came out of the great recession, consumer confidence and consumer spending have continued to increase, and we have benefited from that trend.

The second piece is that we’ve seen Millennials really embrace pet keeping even more than prior generations. Their relationship with their pets has also evolved, which opens up new avenues for manufacturers to develop products that meet the unique needs of Millennials. That has helped keep the industry alive and vibrant and growing.

Of course, there are always challenges that come with an industry this large and diverse. For example, consumers are dictating how they want to obtain products and how they want to research product attributes. This is changing the dynamics of the marketplace in ways that I don’t know that we would have anticipated even just a few years ago. Certainly, a big part of that is online sales, subscription sales and the growth of e-commerce in general. That has been a challenge for traditional brick-and-mortar stores to deal with as they’re fighting for their share of consumer spending. It’s simply reflective of the changing nature of retail in this country. As consumers dictate where and how they want to buy, individual companies have to adapt their go-to-marketing strategy, and APPA has to provide our members with market intelligence that they can use to help make good decisions in that regard.

Reflecting specifically on APPA now, how is the health of the American Pet Products Association? How is the organization improving the value that it provides to its membership? The Association is the largest it’s ever been, in terms of the total membership. We have over 1,300 member companies, which was a record set this past year. Global Pet Expo, of course, has also continued to grow year over year. So, by those measurements, the health of the organization has never been better.

What we’re concentrating on is positioning APPA to be the first place that companies in the pet industry turn to with their business questions, because we’re able to provide very specific answers. Part of that is simply doing a better job of promoting the services that we currently offer. That means improving our website to make it easier for visitors to navigate and find what they’re looking for. It also means improving our messaging, overall, as well as targeting our messages better to the various constituencies that we represent. We know that we have a diverse membership with very distinct needs, based on company size, time in business and product categories. So, we are striving to provide messaging that is more tailored to those specific needs as we understand them.

We’re also looking at how we can make our research more accessible to members. APPA is well known for the National Pet Owners Survey that we’ve published since 1988. It has been the gold standard for consumer research in our field. We want to make it easier for companies to find what they’re specifically looking for within that data, while also expanding the types of consumer and industry data we offer to help members make better decisions about going to market. To that end, this year we are rolling out a new portal that will allow members to do custom research within the advanced database that supports the National Pet Owners Survey. In the past, we didn’t have the capability to let companies dig into the numbers and find information that is specific to the product areas in which they are most interested. The ability to generate custom research very easily through the portal is going to be a game-changer for the industry.


Did your tenure with the Pet Industry Distributors Association (PIDA) previous to joining APPA—and the fact that both organizations work very closely together— take away any element of surprise in your new position? It’s different, for sure, but every organization is different. Probably the biggest change for me—although it wasn’t a surprise—is that APPA has a much larger staff. So, as an organization, it has more resources to draw upon when developing programs and services for members. There’s a level of expertise within the staff here that can be tapped into, which PIDA, being a smaller organization, does not necessarily have. Certainly, PIDA is able to utilize outside resources for help, but having those resources within the organization is probably the biggest difference here at APPA.

In terms of surprises, I guess I would have to point to the fact that, although I’ve worked closely with the APPA staff for a long time and got to know them from that perspective, being on the inside and working with them day-to-day really gave me a better appreciation for the expertise that we have here. There is a core team, led by COO Andy Darmohraj, that has been in place for a long time, with a lot of senior people.

What else can you share about how your first year gone? Were there any surprises or challenges along the way? I think it was a very productive year, overall. One of the things that I wanted to do when I came in was to make sure that the board’s direction and expectations aligned with the APPA staff’s activities. My experience is that one of the best ways to do that is to engage in a strategic planning process that gets input from leadership on what they think should be the strategic direction of APPA, and how we can best serve our members. We did that in June, and since then we’ve been developing strategies for reaching the goals and objectives that were identified. It has really helped us as an organization to define our priorities, and that will make us a stronger organization, overall.

We also did a separate strategic planning process for Global Pet Expo with members of the joint operating committee that oversees the show and is comprised of members of the APPA and PIDA boards. We had them come to our office for a day and, with the help of a facilitator, talked about Global Pet Expo—what the future is for the show, what we should be doing to improve it and make sure it remains the premier trade show for the pet care community. That was a really valuable exercise, and some of the changes at the show this year resulted from the conversations that we had during that strategic planning session.

APPA has experienced several key changes to its staff over the past year.  How have these changes aligned with your strategic planning and better prepared the association for the future? As I mentioned, APPA has been blessed with a lot of senior staff that have been in place, in some cases, for decades. So, we have a very good mix of seasoned professionals and new staff members who bring a fresh perspective to the organization. That’s a really healthy situation.

What we’ve experienced with some of the retirements that have taken place this year is the ability of people to step up into those roles, which has allowed a very seamless transition. For example, when Ed Rod, our general counsel for many years, retired in April, Julia Fidenzio-Alicea, who was on our legal team for nearly 15 years, was able to step into the general counsel role very easily. She is a valuable member of my team because of her legal experience and background, and her understanding of the organization, its members and their needs. So, that was a really easy transition to make.

We’ve also gotten some outside expertise that we didn’t have before. Diane Tiberio, our new vice president of marketing, came from outside of the organization. She has a lot of experience working with other trade associations in handling their marketing, so she brings a level of expertise that we did not have previously. What that will do for us, as she continues to learn the industry and learn the organization, is really tie together all of our marketing assets in a way that is much more cohesive than in the past. That’s not to criticize what APPA has done before, but we really never had the luxury of having one person who could tie everything together for us. As a result, we had separate marketing strategies for membership recruitment, member relations and Global Pet Expo. Diane will pull it all together to make sure that what we’re presenting to our various audiences is a coherent expression of the overall value APPA brings to the industry.

About 20 years ago, APPA launched a consumer-facing campaign called Pets Add Life (PAL) to promote the benefits of pet ownership. How has the campaign evolved over the years? What are some of the most recent developments? In the early years, PAL relied on print media to reach the principal audience of pet buyers at the time, which was 45-year-old women. Today, the target audience skews a bit younger and much of what PAL does is on social media (the campaign has more than a million Facebook fans). PAL is now more focused on the Millennial audience and the upcoming Gen Z audience to help influence their outlook on pets and how pets can enhance their lives.

I have to say that video is also becoming a much bigger portion of the PAL campaign as well. This reflects not only the lower of cost of making videos, but also the fact that it’s how younger generations expect to get their information. We launched four videos last year and we’re proud of the tremendous views they’ve received. In fact, the last two videos of 2019 combined were viewed more than six million times!

So, we’re reaching a very broad audience with the PAL campaign, and it is really gratifying to see the extent of the impact that it is having. Our board’s commitment has not wavered through it all. We’ve increased the budgeting for PAL in 2020 to allow us to do more media buys, so we can extend our marketing reach.

Finally, there’s been an evolution in the type of messaging we’re using. PAL has always used a lot of humor in its videos to encourage pet ownership, and we will continue to do that where appropriate. However, I think one of the most impactful videos that PAL did this past year took a serious approach to the kind of social pressures that Gen Z teens live under. Titled “A Pet Sees You,” the video follows a young woman as she navigates the challenges of growing up in the world today, and focuses on how her dog is a constant companion that is soothing and helps to calm some of her fears as she goes through daily life. It’s an important message and one that we’re very proud of. You can expect to see some more of that type of serious messaging mixed into what PAL does in the future.

I should also mention that PAL is entering its third year of sponsoring Bark at the Park at Major League ballparks around the country. Along with Central Garden & Pet and the Kroger grocery chain, we will be in 12 cities throughout the baseball season to welcome fans and their canine companions to enjoy a day at the ballpark. There are pup parades, photo booths and special team logo giveaways. It’s a great experience and I encourage everyone to check the PAL website to see when Bark at the Park will be in their city.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the creation of the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI). What has this organization accomplished over the past decade? What are your goals and expectations for the future of HABRI? HABRI has been one of the great success stories in the industry over the past 10 years because of its ability to bring recognition to the human health benefits that flow from our relationship with pets. While research in this area stretches back 30-40 years, it was all very much confined to the academic realm, and there was really no effort to get that information out more broadly to the general public.

HABRI’s mission has been twofold. One is to continue to fund and promote research into the human health benefits that come from pets. To date, HABRI has provided more than $3 million to fund research projects related to the human-animal bond. The other part of the mission is to compile the thousands of existing studies at the HABRI Central database so that researchers can access that information more readily. Ultimately, it’s about informing the public that there are good reasons for having a pet beyond simply the joy that it brings to your life.

More recently, HABRI has been working with the Michelson Found Animals Foundation on how to address some of the challenges of pets in rental housing. The goal is to help property owners and managers understand that there are real benefits to having pet-friendly policies. Research shows renters tend to stay longer in pet-friendly facilities, and these properties are typically rented more quickly than those that do not welcome pets. So, HABRI is using the research that it has conducted to make a difference for pet owners, as well as people who want to be pet owners but can’t because of their housing situation. It is estimated that easing restrictions on pets in rental housing could help 8.75 million pets find homes.

APPA supports a variety of pet-related charitable programs, such as Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation’s (ARF) Pets and Vets program. What drew the association to this particular program? What are some of the other programs that APPA supports? It’s part of what we call “APPA Gives Back” and reflects our commitment to working with organizations that support pets, whether it be through shelters or programs for veterans and others who can be helped by service animals. The giving program that we help coordinate with other members of the Pet Leadership Council to support shelters and rescues during natural disasters is a piece of that, as well.

ARF is a tremendously effective animal shelter in the San Francisco Bay area that helps adopt out thousands of animals every year. ARF’s Pets and Vets program is Saving Both Ends of the Leash by pairing carefully selected dogs rescued from overcrowded shelters with veterans challenged with PTSD and other mental health diagnoses. They have created a training program that teaches the dogs to provide the type of comfort and services these vets need. And right alongside them are the veterans who are eager to have an animal in their life.

APPA has committed $1 million to help ARF build its new training center, which will open later this year. It is a state-of-the-art facility that will be used by ARF and the veterans that they’re working within the Bay Area, but it will also provide a training ground for other organizations that want to take that model and bring it to other areas of the country. We’re really excited about it and proud to be associated with that organization.

We’re really very fortunate to be a part of an industry that is so caring and giving, and we’re always looking for opportunities to give back. We encourage our members to support organizations that are doing so much to improve the lives of these animals. It’s something that will always be such an important part of our mission of supporting the broader pet care community. 


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