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New Tricks: Innovative Design Language for Pet Food Brands

By Russ Martin

Breaking Category Standards in the Pet Food Space

As the pet category continues to grow, pet food brands have become progressive and innovative by mirroring human visual and ingredients trends rising across food categories.

Still, design language in the pet food space largely continues to follow category tropes — while branding and packaging design are done with expertise, brands are stuck sharing the similar brand narratives on repeat. Many of these brands tend to fall into one of two camps: the farm-to-table motif showing off raw, natural ingredients like chicken breast and vegetables to lure consumers with pet food that looks as good as their own; or wolf-and-wilderness, depicting a wild environment where Fido’s wolf ancestors ran free.

Breaking Category Standards in Pet Food

There are a few brands differentiating themselves. They’re creating new points of view expressed through design language that goes beyond category conventions. Design language refers to the look and feel created by type, color, scale, layout and texture. It communicates at an instinctive level by delivering emotional messages that make consumers feel a certain way about the brand and the product.

How are creative pet food brands driving product innovation? They’re borrowing from human diet and lifestyle trends. Whether it’s our evolving concept of wellness or our habituation toward online shopping, pet food brands are taking notice, developing and launching products that click with consumers and align with the choices they are making for their own lives.

While product development has innovated by borrowing trends in human foods — think Paleo-Inspired Patê and Golden Milk Mix for dogs — design language remains stuck on familiar tropes. Brands continue to rely on established visual stylings, like ingredient-first photography, rustic textures, natural color palettes, distressed type and the ever-present imagery of a wolf-dog posing on a rock. In short, brands have work to do to catch their packaging up to their product.

Leveraging a New Design Language

Successful pet food brands are breaking with those conventions, and also going further than simply borrowing design cues from human food. They’re creating packaging that stands on its own as unique and relevant to buyers. There’s a real opportunity for brands in this category to look above the crowd. Here are three examples of new design language for the category — and the brands that are working it well.

1. Digitally Native

Ollie, the maker of fresh, human-grade pet food, is disrupting the category by taking many of the digital-native strategies honed by other startups and applying them to pet food. Like many digitally native brands, such as Warby Parker and Casper, Ollie’s brand language and design choices seek to seize consumers with a tech-first approach driven by the idea of a truly modern customer experience, one where good design meets digital innovation.

Images from Ollie’s Instagram

The brand’s design language is anchored by a memorable, ownable color that is echoed in each of its consumer touchpoints, from its online presence to its packaging. Ollie’s simplified photography style is Instagram-worthy and very millennial, with colored backgrounds, strong shadows and top-down framing. A direct-to-consumer online seller, the brand has smartly designed food bags and shipping boxes. Bold typography and a distinctive copy style communicate the brand’s friendly, “we’re all pet lovers” personality. Everything about the brand, from the product to the tone and visual language to the consumer experience, is simple. And today’s consumer is embracing simple.

2. Personalized

Just Right by Purina tugs on the many strings that make personalization so coveted by brands and consumers right now. Consumers are seeing the benefits of using products tailor-made to address their concerns, and mass brands are beginning to offer products to meet those needs. As brands seek to stay valuable, relevant and helpful to consumers, they’re developing products and embracing design language that says, “I’m for you and only for you.”

Just Right by Purina, as well as other brands like Puppo, lean into many of the design devices being employed by people brands like Curology and Prose. Notably, it’s a real departure for a mass-market brand like Purina to produce customized blends. It’s Just Right product is specifically formulated to address the needs and goals of an individual dog based on an online profile the owner fills out. Bags feature the pet’s name and photo, cementing that impression of personalization. Ingredient details on the pack stress how each ingredient serves a specific purpose, leaving the consumer assured that the product is pertinent to them and their dog’s needs.

Even though highly customized products seem more attuned to online retailing, they’ve made debuts here and there over the years. In the beverage category, Jones Soda built its brand equity more than 15 years ago by playing the personalization game well: Inviting customers to submit photos that could be used on bottles and six-packs, a nifty branding device at the time.

The design language of personalization in pet food includes visual cues that highlight ingredients focused on a particular nutritional need and that convey the handcrafted nature of the product. When the design feels more sincere, more real and more personal, the package signals that the product is special and not just another extension of the brand’s lineup. Companies offering a more focused portfolio of products, instead of a huge range of SKUs with the same brand color anchoring every single product, will have an easier time leveraging personalization. A consumer doesn’t view a shelf full of identical bags and think, “This product was made just for my pet.”

3. Performance-Driven

Go! Solutions by Petcurean is a line of premium-quality food for animals with specific dietary needs and food sensitivities. Its unique design relies heavily on performance cues using design language similar to sports drinks, protein supplements and even sportswear brands.

Images from Petcurean

Performance brands can tap into design language that communicates attributes like high-density nutrition, support for strong muscles and bones, and vitamins for a shiny coat. These visual cues include high-intensity colors on black, like Vitamin Water Active and Powerade. Go! Solutions models a documentary, sports-like photography style in monochromatic black-and-white. The brand’s visual approach engages owners who view their dogs as athletic animals.

As you create innovative new products that reflect pet owners’ own expanding dietary choices (natural, organic, Paleo) and lifestyle aspirations (active, athletic, modern), make sure your brand does not get stuck in old packaging tropes. Look to other categories for inspiration and get out of the echo chamber of sameness.


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