In this episode with Merrick Pet Care’s VP of Marketing, Barbara Liss, you’ll learn about…
“It isn’t rocket science, it’s just, ‘I love my dog. I am the caregiver. I want to make sure I’m giving them what’s best.’ And that’s where we’re making sure that we continue to innovate and deliver on what our pet parents expect.”READ FULL TRANSCRIPT
That was Barbara Liss, Vice President of Marketing at Merrick Pet Care. I’m Brian Walker, your host, this is the Brand Lab Series Podcast, from AE Marketing Group. Barbara, I’m so excited that you’re finally on the Brand Lab Series. We’ve been talking about this for what, two, three years now?
Yes, I finally made the cut. I am excited to be here too.
You’re a cast for Season 5. But I’ve been fortunate enough to know you for many years. You’ve been a great resource and peer for me in terms of my growth and learning with marketing, you’ve helped AE along the years as well. So I’m super excited to sit down with you and talk a little bit about your marketing journey, the CPG industry, what you’re doing at Merrick Pet Care. So welcome to the show.
Thank you, thank you.
I have the privilege of knowing you fairly well, but for some of our audience that don’t know you. Why don’t we talk a little bit about your background? You’ve worked with some really well-known brands over the years, you’re currently running marketing at Merrick Pet Care. So talk about your journey so far in your career.
It’s been a pretty fun journey. It’s gone forwards, backwards, upside down and around. Most of my career since business school has been client-side, so really fortunate to work with big companies like General Mills, Jim Beam, then I decided that maybe I wanted to try a start-up, so I went to a really small five-person startup, decided that wasn’t exactly what I wanted. And spent some time at a digital agency trying to grow my digital skill set as this thing called the Internet became more and more important. And then I was fortunate enough I went over to Quaker to really build their digital capability and combining some of my CPG experience. And then an opportunity came up at Motorola, so to really get out of the category, getting to some global work, do things differently. So I did that for a little bit. And then now I am at Merrick and I have been there for two years, and it’s great, it’s a fun category, it’s a great team, and it’s one of the smaller businesses I’ve ever worked on, and so a great opportunity to really roll up your sleeves and kind of manage the business from soup to nuts, and see those results real-time.
A lot of people may not know this, but the pet care and the pet food industry, is ginormous. I think the last…
That is a technical term for it, ginormous.
Yeah, I think the last time, I was just reading something recently that it’s almost a $30 billion industry, so it is a massive industry. You just talked a little bit about this super impressive Jungle Jim career and Pedigree of all these big brands. Was there something kind of unique about the pet food or in the pet care component of the CPG industry?
Yeah, I think for me the opportunity was a mix of a couple of things, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next, and that’s when you and I had spent some time together. And the opportunity at Merrick came up, and I think there was really three things about it that drew me in. I think the first was leadership, I think that’s so important, especially as you get along in your career really working for someone that you respect as well as with a great group of people. The category, not just pet, but an emotional category. So for a marketer that is a real gift. So to be able to work in a category that is such high emotion is something that I love. And then finally, for me, the growth potential just from a business perspective, I’d always worked in companies where we’d get excited over half a percent growth or maybe we turned it from down to flat, and so to be at a company that was growing 20% year-on-year and trying to get from a $350 million business to a billion dollar business in the next five years was something I’d never had a chance to do. So I think that perfect storm of factors, is what really drew me to Merrick.
Your second point was something we talked about right before we started recording is the emotional side of things. I was telling you about my dog, and you had said something once to one of our team members that always stood out to me, and I was like; per usual Barbara is right again. Which is, outside of children, that’s the closest thing that a lot of people have. So there’s this incredible emotional attachment. At least to dogs, I don’t know about cats, but that’s my personal opinion.
No, the cat people would argue with you. I think cats get a bad rep but they are like family too.
I’m sure they will. I feel like dogs and cats are like Cubs and White Sox, it’s hard to like both.
You would be surprised how many people actually have both. We have a term we call them bipetual. So there are actually quite a few households that have dogs and cats.
There probably is.
There are most people, there are a lot of people who are either a cat or a dog.
You’re not unique.
Yeah. And then you also said something else I think that is pretty interesting as you think about both of our career journeys. And you talked about when you were at Motorola and the evolution of the internet and all of that. I think one of the things that’s really unique also about CPG, and you have a lot of depth there, is there was a time where CPG was almost exclusively brick and mortar, right? Now it’s brick and mortar and we don’t use the term necessarily internet as much as we do e-commerce.
So talk about how you think that has kinda changed. It strikes me as both an opportunity and a challenge as a marketer, ’cause you have two really different sales and marketing channels.
Yeah, I think e-commerce becomes a strategic decision and you’ve gotta think about it from your brand and your business and what makes the most sense. When I was at Quaker it was the early goings of e-commerce, and it was just getting bigger and it took a lot of convincing of leadership to say, “This is important. This is where consumers are.” Just like if you went into a grocery store and you weren’t on the shelves, someone would be really disappointed. Absolute same thing with e-commerce. If someone goes to an Amazon or for us now at Chewy, and your product isn’t there, people are disappointed, and they’ll go somewhere else. So I think it’s really important as you’re trying to meet consumer needs, but at the same time, you have other retail partners who are incredibly sensitive to the growth of e-commerce and you’ve spent a lot of time building those retail relationships. And so at Merrick we spend a lot of time making sure that we’re equally invested and we’re treating everybody the same, from whether it’s our pricing policies, there’s no advantage to e-commerce or retail or the level of promotional support. We really work hard to make sure that it’s fair and equitable, because our business now was actually built in brick and mortar, and our pet stores and our partners are critical to us building our brand and maintaining our business.
And I grew up in a household where my father was in retail, and at that time, for sure, it was all about shelf space and where your product fell on a shelf. And obviously there’s unlimited shelves in many ways, when you think about Chewy or Amazon, just in terms of how many different products are there. But even if you walk into a Petco which I was just in this morning, there’s a lot of aisles, there’s a lot of different brands. What are some of the things that you think are important to try to, whether it be online or in the brick and mortar space, what are some things that brands and marketers can do to try to get consumers noticed?
It is tough and I don’t think it’s changed since your dad’s days of retail, like where you are in the store on the shelf, all of that matters. Same thing with the digital shelf, how you present yourself there and how easily people can find you, all of those things can make the difference between an instant purchase between you and someone else. So I think for us, when it comes to brick and mortar, again, we work really hard with our partners to make sure we have the right amount of space and you’re in the highest traffic spots or closest to the front of the store. And I think for us, we work really hard on our packaging, we’re really, really proud of the quality of the package and the design. We were some of the first people in the pet industry to put actually real whole foods on the packet, so showing the chicken and the sweet potatoes and the vegetables that are really going into there, versus just a dog running through a field. Because when you’re at that point of purchase and you’re like, “I want what is most nutritious for my dog who is like my child.” Those are some of the cues there and we make sure all the nutrition benefits are easy to read and see. And it just, the whole bag tells a story.
And then similarly online, where you have a little bit more time, people are gonna maybe research things a little more, you can include a video or some of those other talking points that you don’t get to in retail, but we work really hard on making sure we have the most important pieces of information easily visible for anybody, no matter where they’re shopping for our product.
Like I said, I was actually in a Petco this morning, and interesting that you talked about the packaging, ’cause one, I was impressed by it, but two, I saw first hand what you were talking about. Because I said, “If I didn’t know that this was dog food, there’s some pretty good looking things in here that I would eat.” I saw the sweet potato and I saw all that. And I think one of the things that Merrick seems to have done well has been more a leading innovator in a lot of different areas, not just packaging, which I think today more than ever, people are thinking just like they are about what kind of foods should I put in my body, what kind of foods should I put in my kid’s bodies, what kind of food would I put in my dog? And yes, cat’s body. But so, to see that, as someone who would purchase things like that, I think that is important. And I think there’s been some other areas, too, where you guys have been innovating to stay at the forefront of the industry in terms of the pet care area. Are there some other things that you’re excited about there?
Yeah, I think we say a lot in pet that pet food follows human trends. So dog follows human, cat follows dog. So we pay a lot of attention to what’s happening in human trends, and I think that’s where as natural and things like organic became more and more important in human foods, it gave Merrick the opportunity to really build that natural category in pet. And we have another organic line, Castor & Pollux, that’s about sustainable sourcing and organic ingredients. And so again, as those things become more important to people. We wanna make sure that we’re providing those things for your pet. We do a lot of work around what are flavor trends, what are health trends, making sure that we have all of those products. Something that we did recently, there hasn’t been a ton of innovation in dental, and our dental treats Fresh Kisses, we worked really hard at to make sure that if you compare us to the leading brand, we only have 15 or so ingredients and the things you can pronounce versus our competitors, we use things like real coconut and spearmint and botanical oils.
So, exactly the things that you would feel good about reading your label. I was just doing some focus groups, they were fantastic, we were in people’s homes and they literally say, “I wanna be able to read a label and know what’s in my food?” A lot of it isn’t rocket science, it’s just, “I love my dog, I am the caregiver, I wanna make sure I’m giving him or her what’s best.” And I think that’s where we try to make sure that we’re continuing to innovate and deliver on what our pet parents expect.
That’s interesting, because we’ve talked a lot at AE, and we’ve talk with some other guest on the actual podcast about how when you compare B2B and B2C brands, how sometimes often the consumer brands lead the trends that then business brands. So it is interesting how you guys are looking at what’s happening in the human trend area of health wellness other things like that, ’cause again, if there’s one thing I think we know whether or not we’re all avid followers of this or not, like your dental health has a lot to do with your overall health and your cardiovascular health. So the fact that you guys are thinking about some of that stuff, and again, I’m getting emotional ’cause I’m thinking about my dog.
I’m so sorry.
I would have run right out today and bought some of those dental treats if you were still around. But talk a little bit more about that emotional side. Again, you have some great roots in CPG, and some big well known brands with IKEA, General Mills. And you said, Beam and others. I know you mentioned as one of the drivers is why you wanted to go to Merrick, but do you think that marketing for an emotional category makes that job harder?
I think it depends. As you were saying, the question I was thinking about, I don’t think it’s easier or harder if you’re in an emotional category or an unemotional category. Some people might think, it’s harder to actually be in an unemotional category, but then it also might be easier because you’re just like, “I gotta just get my key features my benefits and really just make sure that I’m meeting a need or a demand.” Whereas when you look at something, at Quaker when we were marketing to moms for their kids or now for their pets. I don’t think it’s any harder. I think there’s so many more levers you can pull and I think you have to hold yourself back sometimes, because you could overdo it on the emotional side. And at the end of the day, when you’re talking about something like a food, it also has to be nutritious and deliver on the product expectations. And so we talk a lot about Merrick winning when we have that right mix of functional and emotional. So if I had a Venn diagram up here, picture that spot in the middle, because if I can talk about how my food has real whole foods and higher quality ingredients, and all the benefits that your dog will have, but I can do it in a way that’s, A, different to my competition, but also that allows you to feel like that caregiver that you are and that you’re doing what’s best for your pet. That’s really where you win. And I think that’s where it’s just a ton of fun.
It is interesting to hear the balancing act there, and obviously, trying to at least have fun with it, from an emotional standpoint, but are there some other things that you’re juggling or trying to balance as a brand in the category?
Yeah, I think for us and at Merrick, we have a really interesting marketing challenge, which is awareness. We have this incredible brand and the people who know us find us authentic and they see the performance in their dogs, but we have less than 10% awareness. And so as we create our messages, we might want to really go heavy on the emotional, because it’s pets and it’s a great way to tug at people, but at the same time, if people can’t totally associate it with Merrick and with what makes us better and why they should buy us as a pet food, that’s not gonna move the needle for us. So whereas, when I was at Quaker and it was a brand that everybody had heard of, but kind of lost its relevance, we had to go a little heavier on emotion, because we had to remind people to tap into that nostalgia and what it means and the family and all those sorts of things. So, I kind of talked about that Venn diagram but you gotta know when to push and pull, and when to find the right balance. And so that’s why, back to Merrick today, we really need to make sure we’re talking about the benefits of our food and why it is better than what you’re currently feeding, but do it in a way that also means something, because if it’s just too straight-forward for a category like this, you won’t give them enough reason to make a switch.
Pretty usual, you’ve been sharing a lot of wisdom on your journey and experience and offering some good advice for those that are in the CPG space. I think one of the things that’s interesting about the challenger brand perspective, ’cause it sounds like you’ve obviously been in both roles. What is the loyalty like just across the board, in the pet care, and pet food space. Do you find that it’s harder to get people to switch brands versus maybe some of the products you had in a past life? What’s the loyalty like in your category?
It’s a mixed bag. I think when it comes to your pet just like your child, if there’s a food that you are using that they like, there’s not often an opportunity or a reason to switch. So we see people pretty loyal within a franchise, but they’ll like to mix out a flavor just to mix things up a little bit. But if you’re finding that your dog or your cat is either having digestive problems. I talk more about poop in this job, than I have ever talked about in any professional setting, but those kinds of things are important. And if you start seeing a different energy level, or if your dog has itching or shedding, a lot of those are things, sensitive stomachs, that do prompt people to switch. And so that’s where you just gotta make sure your strategy allows you to be found or that your top of mind, or that you’ve built that relationship with the pet store folks. Because that’s where people go, they’ll either go to the Internet or they’ll go into a Petco or a PetSmart or their local pet store, because those people are seen as the experts. And so, kind of pivoting from your question, but I think that’s why it’s also really important for us to make sure that we’re influencing the right people, and we have some of the most incredible store associates out there that who all serve their dogs Merrick, and kind of seeing that difference is what helps that word of mouth and that commitment.
It seems as though as a brand, you’re putting a lot of things in place to as we’ve already talked about, be authentic as a brand, balance the retail and e-commerce channel, work with your partner relationships well, really put a good emphasis on some of the health and wellness things to really differentiate your brand, but there’s another side of your brand that probably doesn’t quite get as much fame, at least yet, which is a lot of some of the giving back that you guys do. So, share a little bit about Merrick gives back and K9s for Warriors is, again, I think that’s all part of just kind of the authentic mission that you guys seem to have.
Yeah, since we were a family-founded company, Garth Merrick, he’s no longer involved in the day-to-day, but a lot of his principles and things that he believed in have stayed true, and giving back to our communities has always been important to Merrick. Here in Chicago, we are the food provider for PAWS, so the largest no-kill shelter in the country. And another partnership that we have, that we are so proud of is our partnership with K9s for Warriors, and they’re an organization based in Florida, and their mission is really to help provide veterans with a service dog as they transition back into civilian life. And it’s an incredible service, and the results that they see are truly astounding and life saving, and I don’t even mean that as an exaggeration, it is truly life-saving. And one of the things we’ve done is, we’ve helped fund a study with Purdue University, in which they are finally for the first time trying to get actual data that shows how veterans lives are improving because of the service dogs. And ultimately, the goal is that insurance providers will cover the costs of service dogs as therapy versus only drugs which is right now the only method of support that is paid for by insurance.
And so, we’re really, really proud of our partnership and the work we do there. We provide all the food down there, we support the research, and it’s just, it’s an incredible cause. And at the end of the day, as a pet food but as pet lovers, it is really about that bond between, you had a dog, you know exactly how it is. They become your family, and that reciprocal love that you get is unlike any other, and truly watching those dogs and those veterans and how they open up. Some of them were never able to leave their house, they can’t go to the mall. They can’t go to a movie, they can’t go out to dinner. And this dog truly becomes part of them and gives them access to a whole life that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. And it impacts not just the veteran but their family, some of the stories that we see are just, I wanna call them heartbreaking, but they’re just heart-warming and they’re so inspiring. And these people, I have so much respect for what they have done and what they go through, and we’re so proud just to have a little part in that.
That’s a cool story. And I know we’ve talked a ton about the CPG space specifically the pet care space, Merrick, we’ve talked about it being emotional, and I keep thinking about my dog throughout this interview. So as we start to wind down, why don’t we talk specifically just a little bit about you. I know you started talking about this impressive career, that span a lot of different industry and some really iconic well-known brands. Like I said, I think you’ve always been a great peer for me to bounce ideas off of. I know you’ve been a role model to some of our junior staff. What’s kind of one side of you though that we don’t see, is the leadership side. So talk a little bit about your leadership and management style.
That is a great question, and it’s funny we talked a little bit about authentic as it pertains to brands, but I think that’s something that’s really important to me as a leader. Such a great question, and at this point in my career, I should probably be able to give you a great, really distilled answer. But I think part of who I am is about spontaneity, and that authenticity in being who I am, and I think I try to lead with empathy. Really, I remember back when I was an assistant brand manager and I had just bosses who, some of them I was like, “Really? That’s how you’re gonna treat me or you’re gonna say these types of things.” And I always said to myself, “Don’t do that, you’re not gonna do that.” And so I really try to put myself in the shoes of the people on my team. I try to really lead with an empowerment. I believe in that you put good people around you, and good things happen, I might micro-manage every once in a while. But I just say to people, “Tell me what you’re doing and I’ll leave you alone.” But I believe in being myself and fessing up to my mistakes and my shortcomings. And really just not trying to be anybody who I’m not, I just cannot operate that way, I think it would end up all being a big hot mess.
Well, the authenticity is certainly something that I’ve known first-hand in all the years we’ve known each other, too. I think one of the things that I’m always also in awe of you is, you seem so well connected to everybody. You know more people than anybody, people think I know a lot of people, and I actually say, “No.” I’m actually a bit of a Herman, I kind of flow under the radar, my brand online is very different from who I am. But you seem to know everybody, everyone seems to know you and they all seem to say really good things about you, myself included. So, I’m super grateful that you could carve out some time to be on the Brand Lab Series today. So how can our listeners learn a little bit more about you and about Merrick Pet Care?
Yeah, well, first, thank you, I appreciate those kind things. I’m not sure if they’re all true, but I love people, and I love connecting, and so I’m so glad that you and I have reconnected and stayed in touch all of this time. I love the work that you and the folks here are doing. You could always go to merrickpetcare.com. You can also go into any local pet store, and you can find me on Twitter at Chicago Bliss or on LinkedIn. Always happy to connect or chat.
That reminds me of one last thing. So, with mobile phone today, you often don’t really remember anyone’s phone numbers because you’ll type in someone’s name and that, and of course I follow you in your good social follow. But I totally forgot you’ve got one of the best ever Twitter handles, you must have had that early on, but that is a great Twitter handle, that you could probably sell as part of your retirement plan.
Well, it’s funny. So my Twitter handle is Chicago Bliss, and there’s a funny story behind that. Some of you may have heard of or you may have heard of the lingerie league. So first Chicago Bliss, my name is Barbara Liss, so it is actually my initials, it’s not that I just love being in Chicago, which I do, but the Chicago lingerie league football team is called the Chicago Bliss. So oftentimes I get some of their fans following me on Twitter saying, “Hey, can’t wait to go see the @ChicagoBliss.” And I kindly Tweet back and I’m like, “Yeah, you just got a middle-aged mom here. So might wanna find them somewhere else.” I think there’s a lot of disappointed people sometimes, but it’s pretty funny. They haven’t tried to ask me for millions yet.
Well, you learn something new every time we talk. That’s fantastic.
There you go there you go. [chuckle]
That could be a whole other episode. So Barbara, thanks again for coming in on the Brand Lab Series today.
Tags: B2C, CPG, Brand and Marketing, Customer Experience
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