In under 20 years, Stella & Chewy’s has gone from a home kitchen side hustle to a multi-million dollar, international pet food brand. David Campbell and Roy Torres tell Laura Swinton how creativity and a new in-house agency is set to fuel the next phase of hypergrowth
“To me it’s a very emotional space,” reflects Roy Torres. He’s talking about the creative satisfaction he’s found since immersing himself in the world of pet food - more specifically Stella & Chewy’s, a US-based premium pet nutrition company that’s been winning over pet owners with its health-conscious approach. As a dog lover himself, with a new puppy arriving imminently, it’s a space he’s finding enormously gratifying. “If you think about it, a pet is an extension of your family and who you are as a person. I think it’s a really rich creative space when you get all the cliches out of the way.”
Roy joined Stella & Chewy’s midway through 2021, recruited to head up the brand’s in-house creative agency by chief marketing officer David Campbell. The brand has been experiencing hypergrowth in the United States - last year it invested $67.7 million to expand its facility in Oak Creek Wisconsin - and in 2022 it sees creativity as the key to fulfilling its domestic and international ambitions.
The brand began life in 2003 in the New York kitchen of Marie Moody. She had been inspired to start the business after nursing her rescue dogs Stella and Chewy back to health with a special raw diet. Marie had spotted a gap in the market, and a few years later she secured backing from a private equity group Stripes, which acquired the brand in 2013. CEO Marc Hill joined in 2017 and has been driving this recent period of enthusiastic growth, which is even seeing the American brand expand into China.
According to David, part of Stella & Chewy’s success comes down to the fact that the brand was ahead of the big traditional players in the sector in understanding that diet-aware pet owners, themselves getting into specialist diets like paleo, vegan or raw, would transfer that care and interest to their pets. “A lot of it’s expanding new categories and quite frankly, being very much on trend with where most ‘food’ has moved, which oftentimes trickles down from human to pet. It just happened to be that we were on the forefront of those trends, processing as close to nature as possible for our pets. I think because of that the brand has been very, very successful. We’re growing very quickly in the US and starting to expand internationally.”
That’s all been compounded by Covid-19. While many sectors struggled during the pandemic, lockdowns and remote working encouraged more potential pet owners to take the plunge and according to one survey, pet ownership in the US reached a record high of 70% of homes. With both pets and health being hot topics, a brand like Stella & Chewy’s has been like a prime cut of beef.
But for all its growth and global ambitions, Stella & Chewy’s is ultimately a business run by and for pet lovers. Before the pandemic closed the offices and pushed everyone to remote working - Roy’s still never stepped foot in the office - David says it was not unheard of to be sitting in a meeting and looking down to see a dog sniffing around your feet. It’s not something they necessarily proactively hire for, but David says he can only think of one colleague who doesn’t have a cat or dog - but they used to. Just as Roy has found himself drawn into the creative world of pets thanks to his own affinity for dogs, there’s something about the business that makes it a magnet for animal lovers. Small surprise, then, that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel selected it as one of its 2020 Top Places to Work.
Creative Cats and Prolific Pooches In-house at Stella & Chewy's
Creatively, too, the brand wants to out-dodge the competition - hence bringing David and Roy onboard. “I’m a big believer in creativity and what it does for business,” says David. “I think when you’re building out, everyone should harness some sense of creativity.”
This isn’t David’s first time working with or building out an internal creative resource. At Coca-Cola, he helped explore alternative models and went on to build the foundations of what would then become KO:OP, the brand’s in-house agency. And then at Beam Suntory, as head of integrated marketing he led the creative team of around 50 people at the drinks giant’s creative shop Proof.
Since Roy joined, he’s grown the in-house creative department to seven people, a lean and flexible team that includes a creative team formerly of Droga5 and VMLY&R, a project manager/producer, a packaging designer, a graphic designer and a studio artist with a flair for animation. For Roy, who has been working in the agency world since 2007 and whose resume includes stints at Droga5 Sydney,Grey New York, VML and Huge, the experience of heading in-house has been a revelation.
“What’s been really interesting, even though we’re all remote, is just having that arm’s length access to what I still call my client (because we still have to present to brand directors and go through the typical process to sell the creative idea). We have our everyday projects, some big, some small, in different channels, from packaging to digital. But we are our own client, in a way, and we get to think and live and breathe the pet world every single day. When a proactive idea comes to mind, we’re literally a phone call away. And there aren’t any agency ECDs, CCOs or account people in the way like in the typical model, where they’re kind of the filter,” explains Roy. ‘It’s really comforting to know that we’re just a Slack away from presenting a really great idea, even if it’s just a sentence and seeing if someone’s interested in getting that ball rolling.”
While Stella & Chewy’s is more of a romping Newfoundland these days, in terms of scale, the in-house creative department is still in its puppyhood. The past six months have been about getting the team into shape, to gear up for a creatively busy 2022. As a marketer with experience of huge mega corporations, with fairly solidified and labyrinthine processes, this sparky energy and flexibility has been refreshing for David too.
“I think what’s exciting is that in larger companies things are quite developed - and there are pros and cons with that - but working for a hypergrowth company, it changes every single day and it’s sort of a wild ride. Also we’re completely empowered to do what we think is right for the brand. It’s exciting; I can tell Roy ‘hey, let’s do something awesome for the holidays’ and it’s off to the races. At a bigger company you don’t really have that flexibility. Some of the things Roy’s already been able to bring to life would not have happened at those companies, certainly not at the speed at which they happened, which I think is what makes it fun.”
But the benefits of the set up goes beyond convenience and ease. The immersion is allowing the creatives to get beyond the cute-but-bland stories that abound in the sector. “I think living and breathing and working every day on it, you reach a level of insights that you’ve never imagined that you would have been able to dig up and you start to get into these really rich creative territories,” he says.
One of the projects Roy is particularly proud of is a piece of longform content to support Stella & Chewy’s annual efforts to encourage people to adopt older dogs (every year the brand reimburses adoption fees for senior dogs with its The Journey Home Fund). The Transporters was ideated, written, and produced entirely in house and follows the work of Pilots to the Rescue, which flies older dogs from shelter to shelter across the US to increase the chance that they will be rescued.
“It was a way to show our story as a brand: who we are, what we care for and how we love seeing your pets in general,” says Roy. “We wanted to create compelling content to get people excited around adopting senior pets without the typical story of sad dogs in crates. It was more of a story about commitment and literal rescue - risking your life to save a pet every day. It was just a beautiful story. We created so much content, it was a month-long campaign.”
For the festive season, they also created a fun (and highly relatable for anyone who has navigated multiple forms of transport with a pet!) film about travelling.
Marketing to Match Stella & Chewy’s Ambitions
The in-house department is just one element of David’s ambitious plans for 2022. As we speak, they’re preparing for a big campaign to launch in early 2022, where they’re working with external creative and media agencies as well as Roy’s in-house team.
David says the brand is at a stage where they need to think about different forms of media and about increasing investment.
“Historically speaking, we’ve relied quite a bit on earned media as well as a lot of social digital marketing. I think that’s still going to play a critical role going forward. But as we start to really scale and we want to hit our objectives we’re probably looking to more mass vehicles to a degree,” says David, who says that expanding reach and getting the brand out there is a key objective. However, he wants to take a considered approach to ensure that they do mass marketing in a way that retains the brand’s niche and specialist vibe which adds to its premium status.
As well as getting into those above the line channels for the first time, David is also keen to reignite the experiential and activation marketing that was working well for the brand before the pandemic. Cross country tours to neighbourhood pet stores has proven to be an effective way of tapping into communities of pet owners. Dog walkers in particular can be keen to share tips and new products with each other, whether it’s advice about an outbreak of kennel cough or enquiring about a fancy new fleece onesie, and that grassroots grapevine is something that David feels is a rich territory for the brand.
On a deeper level, the team has also been hard at work articulating its purpose, values and mission, an important foundation for the explosion of new work that’s sure to come in the coming year and many years from now. Even though that purpose was something most people working at the company knew implicitly, articulating and designing it has been an invaluable exercise.
“Without going into too many details, ultimately I think we exist to make pets’ lives better and their health better. That’s why we’re here and that’s what we really believe in. I used to say coming in from Coke, we’re just making soft drinks, we’re not saving lives. I think the thing to say here is - and we hear this repeatedly from pet parents - in a way we are saving pets’ lives. You hear, ‘oh my gosh, we started your food and it really did change the health of my pet’,” says David, who reveals he’s seen the same in his own pooch. “I think because of that, you feel like you’re actually doing something that really means something. There’s a purpose behind the brand and everything stems from that.”
Those values inspire the company to work with shelters and motivate projects like their The Journey Home Fund. For Thanksgiving 2021, they hosted the ‘world’s largest thanksgiving feast’ for dogs, donating over 3.4 million meals to shelters and even hosted a Thanksgiving Feast event.
500,000lbs of food waiting to be dispatched to animal shelters as part of Stella & Chewy's Thanksgiving efforts
David’s marketing team and Roy’s creative team also has to help back up Stella & Chewy’s international aspirations. 2021 saw it go through the approval process to set up in China, a pet market that David says is ‘exploding’ and is overtaking the EU as the second biggest market in the world for premium pet foods.
“They really want foods that come from the US because Chinese consumers believe that’s a market of a certain level of quality that they may not be able to get with local brands. There’s a big pull in China for American brands in the premium pet food space, says David, who then reveals a fascinating cultural difference in the market that has a substantial impact on their creative strategy. “Their market is slightly different - more cat than dog, whereas we’re more dog than cat.”
At the start of our conversation, shortly after we all present our own canine companions on Zoom, David tells me ‘hopefully, we’ll be over your way soon’, suggesting that China is very much the beginning and not the end of Stella & Chewy’s global growth plans.
All in all, as the team looks ahead, they’ve got good reason to believe that 2022 will be both the dog’s bollocks and the cat’s pyjamas. “We see ‘22 as being a pivotal year for us,” says David. “We’re really going to start to get to do some really cool stuff.”