Robot Food's Jess Cook on designing for a new breed of pet owner
Robot Food Client Director Jess Cook sat down with Creative Boom to discuss the many nuanced considerations of designing brands that resonate with modern pet parents and how her team's love and respect for animals helps them design human-centred brands that pets will love, too.
Leeds-based agency Robot Food has a penchant for crafting emotive brands from a pet's eye view – in the last year alone, they've given heritage brand Harringtons a contemporary rebrand, redesigned the animal joint supplement brand YuMove, and created a brand for the yet-to-be-launched 'No Animal Wasted' treat line.
The culture of pet ownership has changed dramatically in the last several years – not surprising given the pet boom brought on by the pandemic (according to the BBC, 3.2 million UK households acquired pets during lockdowns).
Today's majority of pet owners are not homeowners with spacious gardens; urban pet ownership has been on the rise for years, with a clear spike in the pandemic. At the same time, pet owners now skew younger. "The category has been blown wide open," Jess Cook told Creative Boom.
With these major changes in the market, the conversation around how pet owners can give their pets their best life is naturally changing. Where in the past, pet branding has largely been functional (though some cat brands aim for luxury), Cook explained that we're now seeing an uptick in playful, accessible, emotionally-driven brands that represent the evolving role of pets in our lives. Even pre-pandemic, this shift has started to take hold – think about the rise of DTC pet brands like Butternut Box, Tails, and Cat Republic.
With many new pet-focused startups springing up as a result of growth in the pet market, Cook explained that heritage pet brands find themselves in a unique position: the equity they've built with longstanding customers is important, but the market is now overloaded with new pet owners whose loyalty isn't a given. With so many choices on the shelves, many speaking directly to the lifestyles of a new generation of pet owners, how does a heritage brand stay on top? This was a major consideration for Robot Food as the team undertook a significant rebranding project for the British pet food brand Harringtons.
"Harringtons needed to evolve with customers' needs, finding relevancy with the new audience of pet owners with more of an emotional hook," Cook told Creative Boom. "They'd relied on trading on quality and price, but that only scratched the surface of the brand – we needed more for people to connect with."
Robot Food's answer to bringing more emotional relevance to the brand is simple but effective: streamlined on-pack cues allow new animal photography to dominate the pack. Now, looking at a bag of Harringtons dog food means looking into the warm puppy eyes of a platonic ideal of a dog.
"The photoshoot was quite an undertaking, but it was such a key part of the project," Cook revealed. For instance, every dog 'model' needs an understudy, and specialist photographers are required. But the result is undeniable: the photography and design capture the emotional experience of loving your pets and infuse Harringtons' positioning with the heart-string-tugging (yet not over the top) messaging it needed to compete.
Also on the Robot Food team's mind while developing Harrington's new heart-led brand was the shifting design cues around wellness. Harringtons has long relied on the natural ingredients in its products to elevate the brand above the rest, but for today's pet owners, "natural" is a given – they want and need more than that from the products they buy. Cook mused: "Especially at times like this, brands can't rest on their laurels: they have to think about the future and not wait until they get to the point of decline to take action."
So while the new Harrington brand retains the classic green and cream colour palette that makes it recognisable, the Robot Foot team endeavoured to tighten up the design, make it more contemporary, and lean on the photography to speak beyond Harrington's natural credits.
Communicating about health and wellness for pets really took centre stage for another Robot Food pet project: YuMove, a line of veterinarian-approved joint supplement treats that pet owners can give to pets suffering from joint problems. YuMove products can also be offered as preventative measures, the way we take regular vitamins and supplements as humans.
Cook said that the success of a product like YuMove directly results from evolving attitudes around health and wellness in a younger generation of pet owners. Today's pet owners "anthropomorphise our animals," Cook (a cat parent herself) explained, and because wellness is aspirational for us, we now put the same emphasis on it for our animals.
Pet owners today don't just want to buy the healthiest food – they want to offer their animals the height of health and wellness through supplements. Late last year, Queer Eye stars Johnathan Van Ness and Antoni Porowski launched their own pet food "mix-in and functional topper" line, Yummers.
But Robot Food and YuMove took a different approach than Yummers when it comes to speaking to pet owners about supplements. While Yummers leans 100% into the same kind of emotional storytelling that defines Harrington's new branding (though the brands are certainly aesthetically different), YuMove aims to balance that much-needed emotional connection with the clarity and functionality of the brands' medical benefits.
As with Harringtons, photography played a crucial role in the design: action shots of dogs at play stand out on pack, creating that emotional layer by connecting pet owners to the image of health and happiness they want for their dog. The photography is complimented by a dynamic, playful graphic language that builds trust and emotional connection.
Robot Food's most interesting and dynamic pet project may be yet to come: NAW, which stands for No Animal Wasted, "celebrates all the gristly, hairy, nose-to-tail treats your dog loves," said Cook. Robot Food created the name and the full brand, which will come equipped with a hand-drawn customised type and textures using scans of the actual products to communicate the rawness of the brand through the design elements.
Launching in March, NAW will rely less on animal photography and more on attitude. However, the foundation for the brand still speaks to Robot Food's commitment to designing brands that emotionally engage pet owners and help them make the best choices for their pets.
Harringtons, YuMove, NAW and all of Robot Food's other pet projects speak to a deep understanding of the evolving role of pets in our lives, and the agency stands out as an advocate for modern, meaningful pet branding that perfectly balances the functional with the heartfelt.
Cook says the real key may be the team's shared love and respect for animals. "Many of the team that worked on these projects have pets, and we all love animals. It makes it easier when you understand and recognise the quirks and experiences of animals and how pet owners experience caring for their pets. You must be in the pet club to get it – and we are."