The Power Of Giving
Pet product manufacturers expand their brands by tying philanthropy into their business models.
By Drew Andersen
The adage “’Tis better to give than to receive” is not just something told to children to induce them to share their toys.
In fact, people are happier when they spend more of their income on others than on themselves, according to a 2008 study by Harvard researchers.
In the pet product manufacturing industry, the advantages stretch beyond the warm, fuzzy feelings of giving back. Brand expansion is a natural offshoot of charitable giving. In fact, some companies have built their entire business model around philanthropy.
“People want to be good and be associated with things that do good,” said Tom Bagamane, director and co-founder of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Freehand. “There’s a tremendous outpouring of love and philanthropy for pets in this country.”
However, charitable giving is not a one-size-fits-all venture, and manufacturers have carved out a variety of niches to give back to those less fortunate while engaging customers and increasing brand awareness.
Giving back is a two-birds-with-one-stone type of endeavor for pet product manufacturers.
On the one hand is a sense of social responsibility.
“We feel that doing good business should include doing good things for others,” said Ryan Tarver, marketing manager for San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based Cloud Star.
On the other hand, giving can help grow a brand.
“From a selfish standpoint, it brings awareness to Spring Naturals, as well as about our food,” said Rob Cadenhead, vice president of sales and marketing at Performance Pet Products in Mitchell, S.D.
It can also help a company set itself apart from the competition.
“[Philanthropy] gives us another point of differentiation,” said JP Stoops, director of licensing at Silver Spring, Md.-based Animal Planet and its parent company, Discovery Communications. “With all the selection out there, this gives consumers another reason to choose Animal Planet the brand.”
Companies including Dog for Dog and Freehand, both of Santa Monica, Calif., have built their business models on charitable giving with buy-one-give-one programs, through which a dog in need is provided with a meal or a treat each time a customer buys one of the companies’ products.
But even with the efforts being made by these companies, there’s still plenty of room for other companies to make a charitable effort.
“No one person or one company could ever meet the challenge we have with these rescue groups across the country,” Cadenhead said.
Types of Programs
The vehicles for donating vary widely.
For instance, about four years ago, collar manufacturer Up Country Inc. of East Providence, R.I., was looking to celebrate the company’s 25th anniversary. In the prior year, the company had relocated and noticed several dogs being walked in front of their building each day.
The Up Country staff discovered that the Rhode Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was located nearby, and the dogs were shelter pets being walked by volunteers.
Up Country developed a program where when a pet was adopted from the RISPCA, the new owner would receive a certificate for a free Up Country product.
“Usually they come right over on their way home,” said Donna Bodell, director of marketing at Up Country.
The program has garnered some interest from local press, but as Bodell said, it’s been more about the warm feelings than brand awareness.
“Maybe 15 to 20 percent [return as customers],” Bodell said of the new dog owners. “I don’t think it’s that many. But I think that they do tell their friends, and I think there’s a lot of good feeling and a sort of feel-good thing for us.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Animal Planet’s line of pet products enjoys the built-in advantage of having a sizeable charity at its disposal through Discovery Communications’ ROAR (Reach Out. Act. Respond.) program.
This program provides funding for between eight and 10 partner organizations, said Stoops. The program focuses on domestic and wild animals. Some of the partner organizations include the ASPCA, the American Humane Association, the National Wildlife Fund and PetFinder.
A portion of each Animal Planet product sold is fed into the ROAR fund. Established in 2010, the program is on track to have donated $1 million by the end of 2013.
“Ths gives us the ability to support a wide variety of really great organizations that stand for a wide positioning on how to help animals,” said Stoops. “It’s within who Discovery Communications is and who Animal Planet is.”
Cloud Star also reaches past the domestic animal philanthropic arena and provides donations to nonprofit organizations benefiting animals, women, children and the environment, primarily through a program that allows customers to donate to a nonprofit of their choice by collecting UPCs from purchased products.
“[Customers] can purchase wholesome, delicious treats for their pets and support a cause they care about at the same time.”
At the extreme end of the giving spectrum are the buy-one-give-one companies.
Modeled after Santa Monica, Calif.’s Toms Shoes’ program, both Freehand and Dog for Dog use the buy-one-give-one system to make philanthropy a top-of-mind awareness issue for their customers.
“It’s simple and basic,” said Rocky Keever, CEO of Dog for Dog. “When you buy an item, we donate an item to a dog in need.”
Before starting Dog for Dog, Keever ran several pet product retail stores and would help local shelters with weekend rescue drives. But he felt that the shelters would benefit more from a larger effort.
“No matter how many weekend rescue drives we did or ads we ran behind it, two or three dogs would get rescued, and here come two or three more,” said Keever. “We felt there was no win and no way any single person could solve this problem.”
Bagamane sees his company’s efforts as part of a shift in consumer spending habits.
“We wanted to make a positive impact not only by creating a sustainable business so we can hire people and grow, but also hopefully shift the paradigm forever when it comes to consumerism,” he said.
In just eight months of business, Freehand has donated 82,000 meals to dogs in shelters, rescues and humane associations.
Engaging the Consumer
Creating awareness of a charitable program increases customer engagement and allows a company to toot its own horn.
Performance Pet Products hosts a program called “Spring Into Action,” through which it not only helps rescue organizations, but also recognizes heroes in communities.
Every month one human hero receives a bag of Spring Naturals dog food and a bag of Spring Naturals treats, along with two bags of food to donate to a local shelter. A grand-prize winner each year receives $2,000 worth of food and $500 cash to donate to a shelter of the winner’s choosing.
Like many companies, Performance Pet Products does the bulk of its promoting through social media.
“Social media is the quickest way to get the word out about our programs, whether it’s Facebook, Instagram or the blogging community,” said Cadenhead. “It’s about making everybody aware of what needs to be done out in the community.”
Facebook represents an opportunity for fledgling companies to spread their message without being drowned out by the big players in the industry.
“To even the playing field, we want to use social media, which is probably the most effective brand builder in our lifetime,” said Bagamane. “We just crossed the 100,000 [Likes] threshold on Facebook. If you look at other super-premium foods, we’re in the top 10 [in terms of total Facebook Likes].
Up Country posts photos to Facebook of newly adopted pets wearing their free collars and harnesses donated by the company. Discovery Communications has 10 million Facebook fans and can quickly disseminate information about its ROAR program to a mass audience.
Regardless of the reason, one thing is certain—the companies engaging in philanthropy are passionate about their programs.
“We’ve opened up this platform, and now people are able to get involved and are at a rapid rate, and it’s really exciting,” said Keever. “It’s what makes us work 10 to 12 hour days.”