Animals & Money: Pet companies jump on the adopt-a-pet bandwagon

When Pedigree has a Super Bowl ad this week, it won't be advertising dog and cat food, but pet adoptions. The pet food industry has discovered cause advertising. It's a form of advertising that links a product to a feel-good cause. Instead of companies just blowing money on ads that tell you how great they are, they actually do something great.

Emmis Marketing says that 87% of consumers would switch to a brand associated with a cause over a comparable brand. Pedigree's director of marketing, John Anton, recently told The Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "Every time we run this campaign, we see increased sales."

Not to be outdone, Purina has several programs: It gives food to shelters, pays adoption fees for seniors and advertizes for the adoption cause. Hill's Science Diet sponsored Change a Pet's Life Day this weekend, paying for the first 10 adoptions at shelters around the country. Iams works with and says its Home for the Holidays program has put 1 million dogs and cats in homes over the last decade. Iams donates food and each of the pets goes home with an Iams starter kit

Consumers rightly question whether big brands are really putting some muscle into their pet causes or just slapping a few phrases on their bags.Pedigree told the Journal it spends half its marketing budget on the adoption cause, but won't say exactly how much that is. The Journal, quoting TNS Media Intelligence, says Pedigree, which is part of Mars, spends about $32 million on ads a year. (That doesn't necessarily mean the adoption campaign is $16 million. I'm not that bad at math. The $32 million was an external guess and might only include ad buys, not the overall marketing budget. So, it could be more than $16 million.)

But even just marketing has a value in this case. The public mood is swinging toward adopting pets. Look at the Obamas: a CNN poll found Americans want the first family to adopt a dog by a 2:1 margin. Joe Biden got hit with a backlash for buying a puppy from a breeder.

With 3 million dogs euthanized in American shelters each year, who could be against pet adoptions? Well, being pro-pet adoption isn't the same as being pro-let's-cure cancer. Breeders are not so keen on adoption. They may not want to trash-talk helping homeless pets survive, but they'll talk about the importance of knowing what you're getting in a dog.

Many of the pet food companies are putting real money and effort into pet adoptions. But they also seem to be talking out of the other side of their mouth about the joys of having a purebred. Iams has an adoption page, but then at the bottom it links to its Breedsmart program with sister brand Eukanuba. Purebred puppies get a starter kit, too. In England, Pedigree stopped sponsoring Crufts (the British equivalent of Westminster) after the BBC documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed showed how inbreeding and breed standards have lead to health problems. But it's still doing Westminster.

The pro-adoption side of the dog world is getting a lot more attention. But the pet food companies are still not willing to say good-bye to the purebred world. For a long time pet food companies seemed to equate purebreds with being better dogs and deserving better foods. Many have claimed to be a favorite of "top breeders." I wonder if we'll ever see ads saying a brand is preferred by top animal rescuers?
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