A Way of Life
Driven by passion for a specific identity or set of values, several brands are proving their lifestyle-focused models can thrive in an industry growing ever more competitive.
Every pet owner who walks through your front door has an animal in their life that they love, and the relationship they share with their pet is a fundamental part of who they are as a person. But being a pet owner is only part of the equation. They have other values, interests and beliefs that influence how they live their life and, most importantly for retailers, what products they choose to buy—including those for their animal companions.
As Millennials have become the driving force in consumer spending, identity and lifestyle have become increasingly important to product branding and marketing. Businesses of all kinds have had to adapt to the mindset of a generation known for its preference for experiences over possessions and lack of traditional brand loyalty. It’s no longer enough for a company to show that they have a high-value product—consumers want to identify with brands and choose products that they feel align with their broader values and goals.
As a result, the companies that are seeing the most success in engaging today’s consumers are lifestyle brands—businesses that are fueled by a passion for a particular lifestyle or identity, allowing them to create authentic, high-quality products for their consumer niche. This approach to building a business is gaining traction in the pet industry, where the value of having a strong lifestyle brand in gaining a loyal customer base is quickly becoming apparent.
According to J. Nichole Smith, pet industry marketing expert, brand builder and author, as more and more competitors enter the lucrative pet industry, embracing a specific identity beyond “pet lover” is essential to standing out and forming a strong bond with consumers.
“It’s not enough to have your brand based on the pet-human relationship because almost every brand in the pet industry is based on that,” she says. “The reason a lifestyle brand can be more effective is because you’re adding another element to that specialty.”
That additional element can be almost anything, so long as it’s authentic. For Nulo Pet Food, a passion for an active, athletic lifestyle forms the guiding principle behind everything the company does. This distinctive identity helps the company have a clear idea of who the Nulo customer is and create the perfect products to meet those pet owners’ needs.
“Nulo is for people who want to be out and active with their pets,” says Michael Landa, founder and CEO of Nulo. “It’s about getting out and getting active and being fueled appropriately for that.”
For Zuke’s, which makes treats and supplements, the focus is on providing nutrition specifically created for the adventurous pet owner.
“The consumer that most identifies with our brand is one who never wants to stop seeking out adventures and understands that simple, quality ingredients and wholesome nutrition are essential for their pet to live a healthy, active life,” says David Rizzo, Zuke’s director of operations. “We consciously created a company focused on exploring with our dogs and pursuing a vibrant life that makes both pets and people happier.”
For consumers invested in modern aesthetics and eco-friendly practices, P.L.A.Y. Pet Lifestyle and You offers the perfect combination of style and sustainability with its design-conscious beds and toys.
“The kind of consumer that identifies with our brand is someone who appreciates thoughtfulness in every aspect of product design and quality, shares our mission in being socially and environmentally responsible and is passionate about celebrating an active and fulfilling pet parenthood,” says Will Chen, founder and managing director for P.L.A.Y. “Our products allow people to further integrate their pets into their home without sacrificing style or aesthetic appeal.”
Perhaps the clearest and most succinct expression of these companies’ identities can be seen in their taglines. For Nulo, it’s “Healthier Together,” Zuke’s has “Live Life Off Leash” and P.L.A.Y. embraces “Better for Pets, People and Planet.” Each gives a clear and immediate impression of what the company believes in, drawing in pet owners who share those lifestyles.
All three of these companies have keyed in on a crucial element of successfully marketing to the Millennial generation. Rather than simply selling a product, they focus on the life experience their customers care about and create solutions that enhance those lifestyles.
“It’s about selling an experience rather than selling a thing,” Smith says. “Lifestyle brands put the experience at the heart of their marketing.”
While lifestyle branding is about much more than just marketing tactics, how these kinds of companies market themselves, from who they partner with to where they advertise to what kind of messaging goes on their packaging, is essential to building a strong brand image. Nulo has built a strong connection with its athletic and active target audience by partnering with a range of influential athletes, such as tennis player John Isner, Crossfit champion Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, NFL linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and many more.
Recently, Nulo took its professional athletic connections to a new level, announcing its partnership with 23-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps. As a world-renowned athlete who prioritizes nutrition in his own life and extends that to his role as pet owner, Phelps gives Nulo a greater opportunity to connect with its target audience on a broad level.
“His lifestyle is very much all about nutrition,” Landa says. “He’s had to pay a lot of attention to how food fuels his body.”
True to the authenticity that is the hallmark of a strong lifestyle brand, Nulo’s partnership with Phelps runs deeper than a famous name and face for advertising. Phelps not only feeds Nulo to his own two French Bulldogs but is now an investor in the company, demonstrating a level of support that goes beyond a typical endorsement.
“[Phelps] is really looking for a partnership with Nulo because he believes in the mission,” Landa says. “He’s not only invested, he’s an investor, and the possibilities with Michael as a person that can talk about nutrition and performance on a broad level is really exciting. As a small but growing brand, we seem to have gotten to a new level.”
While Phelps is a valued partner, Landa emphasizes that Nulo’s connection to the athletic lifestyle is bigger than any one individual. “It’s not a branding strategy,” he says. “All of us here are athletes. We’ve got runners and triathletes; we just did a team Spartan race. Food as fuel really resonates with us.”
To connect with its target consumers—the widespread community of adventurous pet owners—Zuke’s has found a valuable resource in various social media platforms. Using this popular form of engagement, the company has created an influencer program to team up with active pet owners who embody the Live Life Off Leash mentality, helping them reach a broad audience of pet-product shoppers who share those values.
“The spirit of our brand is best represented in people who are adventuring with their pups day in and day out,” says Rizzo. “From canyoneering and paddle boarding to kayaking and hiking, our Instagram influencers are passionate, real-life advocates both for Zuke’s and for living an outdoor lifestyle that’s best experienced with a dog by your side.”
Through these kinds of partnerships, as well as participating in, sponsoring or attending events, lifestyle brands embrace their respective communities—an element that Smith says is critical to the authenticity of a lifestyle brand.
“A lifestyle brand is out there getting their hands dirty alongside people who are living this life, whether that means creating events or creating Facebook groups or pages for people to connect,” she explains. “They are actively connected to people who share this lifestyle and showing up there just for the sake of showing up there. It’s not just a tactic for these brands, it’s truly a way of life.”
Making a Difference in Pet Stores
Aligning with companies that have built successful, authentic lifestyle brands can be valuable to pet specialty retailers. For example, Landa explains that Nulo’s participation in athletic and sporting events helps drive new traffic to stores.
“Everybody is fighting within the four walls of the store, and that doesn’t help retailers,” Landa says. “At swim tournaments, we show Natalie Coughlin’s Nulo promo video. We go to Ironman events and have conversations about pet food there. We’re able to track everything and demonstrate that we’re increasing the amount of traffic in retail, which is pretty unique.”
Smith makes the case that lifestyle brands can also offer retailers several advantages inside the store, from higher-quality marketing materials and packaging to potentially higher margins. “When you’ve got a brand that’s really passionate, there’s often much better in-store marketing materials,” she says. “If they’re trying to promote a lifestyle, they’re doing it on all levels. They’re out there doing better marketing and raising awareness and desire for their brand.”
Smith also says that lifestyle brands tend to invest more in their packaging, taking the time to design bags, displays and tags that communicate their mission and values. For P.L.A.Y., this present an opportunity to emphasize the brand’s sense of whimsical style, while highlighting its focus on sustainability.
“We create tags to highlight the top features of the product, while also reflecting the personality of the items with playful and witty descriptions,” Chen says. “We also provide retailers with creative, matching merchandise display boxes.”
In recognition of its efforts to be socially and environmentally responsible, P.L.A.Y. has also earned B Corp certification, a fact that is featured on its packaging designs. “By adding that tag detail, we let consumers know that they’re contributing to a company with values that include an active commitment to progressive, sustainable business practices,” Chen says.
Zuke’s recently undertook an extensive packaging redesign to better reflect the values of its lifestyle brand, both in style and substance. The company found ways to adjust the materials and size of the packaging to reduce its environmental impact, demonstrating care for the natural world that is so intrinsic to its customers’ lives. In terms of design, the company sought to highlight its identity.
“From photos featuring local pet lovers and their pups, to a topography map of the Durango mountain area that serves as the bags’ background, every detail of the new design is authentic and further reflects the brand’s outdoor lifestyle and ties to its headquarters in Durango, Colo.,” Rizzo says.
Lifestyle brands also offer retailers a unique selling point when talking to customers in their stores. Companies with this branding approach usually have a unique story to tell about where they and their products came from, both in a literal and more figurative sense, which can be a powerful tool for making a sale.
“This idea of provenance, of knowing where stuff comes from, it’s becoming more important than ever,” Smith says. “These lifestyle brands have stories that are memorable and easy to repeat. They can tell a story about where the product comes from.”
For P.L.A.Y., having that story and identity is essential to the success of the business. It’s that authenticity and passion for their missions that allows lifestyle brands to make connections and build customer loyalty in a way many traditional large companies can’t.
“A consumer brand can just be a company that makes and sells products, or one that builds a loyal community of followers around them, inspires them, puts a smile on their face and elevates the consumer experience,” Chen says. “It is important because it is what makes our company unique, successful and sustainable, armed with a strong brand identity that doesn’t fade with trends.”
For a true lifestyle brand, it’s not about pleasing every single consumer in the market—it’s about serving its community. Nulo takes this philosophy to heart, which is apparent in its new marketing campaign, titled “We Decide.” Rather than focusing on telling consumers that Nulo is the best food for everyone, the advertisements and marketing materials aim to empower pet owners to make informed choices about what they feed their pets.
“Rather than telling people what they should buy, our goal is to inspire them to make their own decisions,” Landa says. “By inspiring people to turn the bag around and look at what’s inside, we know we’ll win.” PB