The modern American’s life is increasingly monitored, automated and connected. Fitbit measures their steps. An Amazon Echo can control a television set or search the internet. Nest allows users to see inside their homes 24/7 and control their thermostat from their phones.
But the world of pets is still decidedly low-tech: Run around the yard. Chew a squeaky toy. Eat a more-or-less eyeballed serving of food out of a plastic bowl. Now Mars Petcare, the global food giant’s line of products and services for four-legged friends, is looking to change that—by changing the kinds of products it creates, as well as the way it creates ads for them.
"Everything else in our world is smart. We have trackers for everything. But the way we care for our pets hasn’t evolved as quickly," said Heather Wajer, chief marketing officer at Whistle Labs, which was acquired by Mars last year for $117 million. Whistle makes a GPS-enabled pet collar that tracks an animal’s location and activity level that lets pet owners know where their pet is at all times and track it down via a mobile app if it gets lost or stolen.
The first ad campaign for Whistle breaks Monday, created by BBDO San Francisco. The series of three online videos marks the first time a U.S. agency has worked with Flare Studio, a crowdsourced content platform that originated at AMVBBDO in London. Mars was the first client to sign up to work with the service last fall, and now Flare Studio is rolling out to BBDO offices in America.
It’s also the first time Flare Studio has helped launch a new campaign. Previously, Flare Studio contributors have worked on expanding existing campaigns, like the "Matchy Matchy" video series for pet food brand Cesar.
"It allows everyone in the family to fully participate in creating campaigns," said Leonid Sudakov, president of Connected Solutions at Mars Petcare, the consumer tech and data arm of the company that launched in November of last year.
Whistle and BBDO worked on the creative concept together, "finding a fun, entertaining, engaging way to talk about the quirky, crazy things pet owners do to take care of their pets, and then positioning Whistle as the smarter way," Wajer said. Then they uploaded a brief to the Studio Pro section of the Flare Studio site, reserved for production companies or directors with a broadcast background. The brief requested a submission of "two films that poke fun at the extreme lengths pet owners will go to."
They received more than 50 submissions, and selected production company Fat Lemon out of London to work with. The platform "allows for a lot more ideas to come to the table and a lot more creative solutions for bringing the brand to life," Wajer said.
Sudakov agreed. "It has really allowed us to go for much more breadth, building on the core creative idea that already existed. For us it’s been a very bold approach, but I’d say it’s been a great one in terms of truly being the best approach adapted to the way a start-up like Whistle is operating, versus trying to make them work like a big company."
The Whistle campaign also signals the first salvo in Mars’ efforts to bring pet ownership into the digital age, a potentially lucrative space of high-tech gadgets and subscription services. (While Whistle’s activity monitor is free to use, the GPS tracker runs $7 to $10 per month.)
"We want to make the pet care world better by making it smarter," Sudakov said. Consumer goods brands don’t have much of a reputation for technical savvy, but Sudakov is intent on presenting Mars as an innovation leader.
"Whistle has been an enormous part of our new R&D programs," he said. "We are in a couple of tests at the moment in the US and Canada, developing a holistic program that includes activity and nutrition to help truly take care of pets."
The nature of the Whistle device makes that possible. It’s a small box that weighs less than an ounce and straps to a pet—not just dogs—like a collar. The anonymized data from the thousands of Whistles currently in use provides a detailed snapshot of pet health across the country.
"Today we are able to start building a massive database of activity by breed, by age, by size," Sudakov said. Mars has the infrastructure in place to use that data, too. It owns The Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition, as well as 800 Banfield pet hospitals, which employ more than 3,000 veterinarians. The new data will help those vets make better health recommendations, and Mars will be able to use its findings to create better formulations for existing brands, as well as entirely new products.
"Beyond Whistle," Sudakov said, "that’s where Connected Solutions is really becoming the cornerstone of developing the future of the Mars offerings in the market."