From online dog adoption drives to a surge in treats for pampered pets, Mars Petcare’s VP of marketing Craig Neely tells LBB’s Laura Swinton how the pandemic has affected our animal friends and how the business has responded
“In my own home, I can tell you that my dog Renzo is getting tons of attention, particularly from my daughters. I never thought I’d see the day, but he might actually be getting tired of hearing us grab his leash and say his favourite words, ‘Let’s go’.”
One unexpected side effect of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns is that those of us with pets have been spending a lot more time in their company – and those of us without have been wondering whether a little feline friend or canine chum might make the isolation a little bit easier to deal with. For Craig Neely, it’s a truth that he’s seeing play out through his job (as vice president of marketing at Mars Petcare) and also somewhat closer to home with his own doggy pal Renzo.
The changes brought about by lockdown or shelter-in-place orders have had some interesting effects on how people are interacting with pets, and that has, in turn, had an impact on Mars Petcare brands like Pedigree and Whiskas.
“There is plenty of data supporting the idea that pets and people can help each other during these stressful times – I am seeing that daily in my own home,” says Craig. “Part of how we show affection to our pets is through treating, and we have definitely seen a sustained increase in treat sales since shelter-in-place orders started.”
These behaviour changes have also illuminated new ways for the brand to support pets and their humans. Dogs, for example, are finding themselves with an abundance of ‘walkies’ – indeed in early March through conversations with industry friends and colleagues in Italy, we heard that neighbours were borrowing each others’ dogs as it was one of the few permissible reasons to be on the street. And that observation was also picked up by the marketing team at Mars, who spotted a timely, relevant and relatable tale (or tail?) to tell.
“We’ve seen pets getting more attention, more time with their humans and more walks than ever. That insight actually led to a new piece of creative from Mars Petcare’s NUTRO brand called ‘Who Wants A Walk’. The ad pokes some fun at the measures we’re all taking to get out of the house and nods to the uptick in exercise for Tucker, the family’s dog, as he’s taken outside for repeated walks,” says Craig, who adds that the commercial was created with the kind of resourcefulness and ingenuity that has come to characterise Covid-19 work. “The ad itself was created with social distancing guidelines in place, using a minimal crew and the director of photography’s own home, family and dog as the set location and talent."
On a practical, supply-chain level too, data has been crucial as behaviours have shifted throughout the course of the pandemic. “When the shelter-in-place orders started, we did see an initial burst of pet parents stocking up on their pet food and treats and buying in bulk, due to all the uncertainty. Since then, things have leveled off and are starting to return to more normal shopping patterns. We’ve seen online sales increase and in-store purchases go down, which is to be expected, given social distancing. “
Sadly, not all doggies are lucky enough to have a family to live with. Mars has long been involved in supporting initiatives to rehome pets around the world, particularly when it comes to its Pedigree brand. Right now, there’s a greater interest in adopting dogs and cats as businesses wake up to the benefits of working from home and people realise they will likely be less office-bound even after the pandemic subsides. On the other hand, social distancing measures and people’s worries about going out in public generally have meant that it’s been trickier to facilitate those pet adoptions in a safe way. Enter Mars and its agency BBDO New York, which has introduced a video-conferenced adoption drive.
“Some of the best news we’ve seen during this time is the numbers of pets being fostered and adopted from shelters across the country,” says Craig. “We love seeing that and are excited to help find forever homes for even more adoptable dogs with ‘Dogs on Zoom’.”
The Dogs on Zoom pilot event took place last week over three days in Nashville, which is also Pedigree’s home town. In conjunction with the Nashville Humane Society, they worked with shelters and the brand covered the cost of the adoptions as well as setting up local shelters with equipment and Zoom subscriptions. They’ve also created a digital tool kit so that shelters elsewhere can host their own online adoption drives.
So far the scheme has been a real success, leading to 2,000 adoption enquiries. “The response to ‘Dogs on Zoom’ so far has been so inspiring,” says Craig. “By our third event, we had 1,500 people joining the Zoom call. Over the course of three days of events, the shelter received more than 2,000 adoption inquiries. While it takes time to review the applicants and select the right home for each dog, we’re thrilled to see that every dog featured in the events has several pending adoption applications. We’re confident that all of them will find their forever homes, along with even more dogs that weren’t even featured on screen, which is exactly the response we were hoping to see.”
The pilot has also caught the imagination of Mars Petcare teams in other countries, so we may well see the program roll out in other markets.
Throughout the experience, Mars Petcare has been informed by data and insight, but guided by a sense of purpose, which they describe as ‘a better world for pets’. While some companies have rather stumbled upon an unexpected purpose during the crisis, for the teams at Mars Petcare, the pandemic has given them new perspectives on a cause that was already baked into the business.
“While the PEDIGREE brand’s purpose hasn’t changed, our way of going about it certainly has,” reflects Craig on how purpose led the brand to the online adoption drive. “So many people are isolated in their homes, and many are realising that a dog can be a great source of companionship and comfort during these hard times. We’re thrilled to see so many people interested in fostering and adopting right now, and it was important to us that we find a creative way to bring our purpose to life. For us, that’s helping people adopt without putting their health – and the health of the essential shelter employees – at risk.”
As the pandemic trundles on and different markets tentatively lift some restrictions and a wave of new pet owners get to know their new fuzzy housemates, the team have more projects in the works due to launch in coming weeks.