Pets are a booming business. Trends like premiumisation and anthropomorphism (humanising our pets) show no sign of slowing down. The pandemic saw 3.2 million animals purchased during lockdown alone, and much to The Pope’s frustration, more young people are choosing to parent pets, rather than children.

In the first of our new three-part blog series, Verve’s Lead Semiotician, Kim Howard, takes the topic of pet care and explores it via semiotics analysis.

So have we reached peak Pawsecco? Where will pet ownership head in the future? Here we will discuss three emergent Semiotic codes within pets, predicting where pet care will head next.

1. Culinary Comforts

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Take pet food brand ‘Hug’. The name of the brand already suggests it’s a symbol of care to our pets. The packaging is in ready-meal style containers, tapping into the ritual of providing comfort food as a gesture of love. Utilising soft pastel tones, the design is a trope synonymous with disruptive millennial lifestyle brands, like Soft Skincare in beauty, or The Modern Nursery in childcare. The colours and branding are loaded with expectations of naturalness and sustainability - an antithesis to the bright, saturated colours regularly found in the children and pet categories. These brands are all seeking to convey kindness (to animal, to baby, to planet) via design cues that are deliberately diluted and inoffensive.

2. High-Brow Hounds

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Pet lifestyles stores are popping up on our high streets. Manchester’s Sticks & Socks looks more like an Aesop store than a pet shop, featuring a curated selection of beautifully minimalist pet products you’re invited to browse like a gallery. In pet fashion, brand Occam create designer clothes for the Whippet breed. The clothes themselves mirror the fashion choices of the designer – sleek turtlenecks for a refined but educated look. The Occam website mirrors a Zara catalogue, with its black and white editorial style. The whippets are posed elegantly like catwalk models - aloof and angular, rather than messy, playful or wild.

3. Reciprocal Relationships

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However, in a different direction we’re seeing reciprocity and animal understanding emerging in culture and category.

In culture, we’re seeing the ethics of pet ownership heavily debated. The Guardian recently reported on the rise of complex medical treatments for pets, questioning whether these are truly ethical, or undertaken for selfish purposes. Likewise, author Jessica Pierce, in her book Run, Spot, Run, poses the question is having a pet good for the animal?

In category, Fenrir training courses speak of dogs as ‘canine companions’ rather than ‘pets’. In the intro to his puppy course, the trainer claims ‘the worst thing you can do for your pet is to treat it like a baby.’ In pet food, brands like Eden communicate ‘the best of science x nature’ with their white pack design and hand-script listed ingredients to suggest ‘only the essentials they need’. Wolves are depicted on pack to suggest nutritionally, this is what our pets should be eating. We’re also seeing the rise of products like Fluent Pet, who provide the tools to give your pet a voice, rather than train it into submission.

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Changing cultural conversation suggests the direction of travel is shifting away from anthropomorphism and toward understanding animal psychology and developing more reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationships. Reflecting on how we can meaningfully live as one in a way that’s true to both our natures.

For brands:

  • Consider language. Pets are no longer lower than us in hierarchy, nor are they worshipped like idols. Language needs to reflect them as equals e.g. ‘companions.’
  • Use visual cues that suggest a back-to-nature approach – a shortcut to efficacy vs. human-style meals inappropriate for their needs.
  • Design products and services that engage our pet’s primitive nature, e.g. Toys that simulate their ‘working’ instincts, foods tailored to biology (e.g. ancestral diets) as well as products and services that educate us on real pet needs and behaviors, and enable us to better communicate with our companions.

Find out how Semiotics can help you and your brands