Four-legged trends

Pampering pet owners have never had such a plethora of products to choose from and never before has the packaging so closely resembled that of human food. Rod Petrie assesses this trend and asks whether it is being taken a step too far

How many times have you seen a cat prey on a chicken or, heaven forbid, a turkey? But, then cat food with blackbird or field mouse doesn’t sound very appetising to a discerning petfood shopper? Let there be no doubt that Britain’s petfood shoppers are discerning and willing to show the colour of their money to satisfy their pet’s taste buds.

The petfood industry has grown from 800m to 1.4bn in less than a decade. To put this into perspective, 1.29bn was spent on fresh vegetables in the UK last year. Safe to say that Britain’s 7.3 million dogs and 7 million cats are well catered for.

Petfood is not just big business for manufacturers; it is an important sector for advertising, sales promotion and design companies. The dominant trend over recent years has been the humanisation of pet food. Supermarkets stock an awesome display, encompassing not just a plethora of brands but also variants. A cosseted cat can start the day with a bowl of muesli and a splash of cat milk, enjoy chicken in jelly for lunch and perhaps have some tuna for supper. Meanwhile, the family dog can enjoy beefy chunks at noon and a “complete dry meal” to round off the day. In essence, the petfood sector has expanded to cater for owners’ perceptions of what their pet requires. This is echoed in pack designs.

In design terms, humanisation manifests itself by mimicking the same brand-building cues used for food brands. For example, Trix dog snacks bear a striking visual similarity to the human treat Minstrels, or equally they could be mistaken for a beef flavour packet of crisps. Similarly, the packaging of Whiskas cat milk seems to draw its inspiration from Carnation long life milk. There is also a move towards injecting “appetite appeal” into petfood packaging, with stylised displays of the product depicted on-pack. The use of expensive illustrations and top food photographers confirms this move. It has reached the point where about the only difference between human and petfood packaging is the animal images on-pack.

This trend is in danger of going too far. Petfood is one of the few areas where designers are still permitted to raise a smile through the characterisation of the pack hero. For instance, the Felix packaging redesign five years ago hit all the right buttons. Consumers loved his cheekiness and the wry paw print endorsement on the top of the can still makes shoppers smile. Tiger, the Asda own-label cat peeking out from under the mat keeps this tradition alive.

The threat to this design style comes from the introduction of wordy descriptors, which have started to weigh heavily on the packs and shunt the characters from centre stage towards the wings. This underpins a major problem for manufacturers, which is the need to communicate variants clearly and succinctly without eroding brand equities.

When Whiskas relaunched its entire range of cat food replete with bright purple labels, it caused confusion among consumers. Although the tins created an eye-catching display along supermarket aisles, they failed to communicate the different flavours or varieties clearly enough. Whiskas has since addressed the situation through the introduction of a colour-coding device.

The way forward for packaging design in the petfood sector is to aim for the right balance between traditional petfood brand values and those of the tinned food destined for human consumption. Yes, appetite appeal is a very important sales tool in this arena, but the trade-off shouldn’t be a loss of whimsy and humour.

Rod Petrie is creative director at Design Bridge.

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