Opinion Series: Category Ethnography – Pets

The folks at Capsule and their research team are at it again! This time they wandered into the pets aisle discovering a variety of interesting facts that effects man's best friend. 


The Capsule design and research team is at it again, now wandering into the dog treat aisle. Again, as Capsule does for clients, they have brought research and design together into a process to better understand behaviors in the aisle. 

Capsule’s findings may question mom’s love for you or merely give you a better understanding as to why the family dog photo on the wall is larger than your own. It is only natural to want the best treats for our furry, tail-wagging friends — a dog is mom’s best friend, after all.

Digging into this vast, diverse category evoked an overwhelming feeling of curiosity in our researchers. We found ourselves asking the questions, for whom are these products marketed? What are these purchasers looking for and why? And finally, how does the packaging reflect these wants and needs?

Well, isn’t that the big hairy question?

If it weren’t for the typical cliché photography on the packaging portraying a yellow lab or boxer as the hero, we’d have to double check we were in aisle number 7 and not 10, the (human) snack aisle. Not only because of the similarity in graphics and package structure, but because of call-outs like “organic," "gluten free" and “antioxidants" used on the packaging. This was a trend found by our researchers in a variety of stores – PetCo, Target and local boutiques. Even the look and feel of the food itself represented that of a human variety. Banana chips for dogs? Some of our researchers questioned if this was a treat they could try for themselves. (No, we did not enjoy conversation over a variety of samples following this research study as we did with our Ice Cream Ethnography.)

There is no doubt pet owners want the best for their pets when rewarding them with a treat or two. The trend of using all natural, gluten free ingredients runs right along side that of the popular, healthy trends in human goodies. This makes perfect sense since humans are the ones selecting the package off the shelf and paying for it at the register. As responsible pet owners, they feel good about giving their pup something healthy and good for the soul – similar to what they’d purchase for themselves. Other trends we noticed to indicate this? Language around the treats being “vet recommended,” or having “advanced oral care.” 

Now we explore the packaging structure findings.

The packages most often picked up and examined in the aisle were those most unique in form. Our researchers were intrigued by the treats with windows to show the products in a creative way. For example, the Fruitables brand uses windows in the shape of how the treats taste. This technique assists in better navigation between chicken, beef and fish flavored varieties in addition to showing the product in an interesting way.

We were also drawn to packages that stood out in structure and personality. Less commercial, hand-drawn illustrations were refreshing. The Buddy Biscuits and Beneful Baked Delights both had a certain quality and cleverness to them that felt different from the rest of the category, helping them stand out at the shelf.  

What intrigued us the most were the Beggin’ Poppers. In a sea of boxes and pouches, the shape was unexpected. The package, acting as a launching pad for the treat to be sprung into the air for the pup to chase or catch, provides a source of entertainment for both the dog and owner. And, forget QR codes, this package goes straight to the mothership by including a hashtag to post videos online of the pup in action. Try keeping yourself, your kids and your dog from coming back for more.

But, what are pet owners more inclined to buy? Why are moms more likely to buy treats for the family dog and ignore her child begging for the checkout aisle enticement? 

Well, perhaps it depends on their pet’s role in the household. If the dog is a “first step” to starting a family or to fill an empty nester’s home, maybe the dog will get more special treatment (organic, all natural, “special” treats) than what a mom with cranky 4 and 8-year-olds in the grocery store would purchase for her kids. Some of our findings indicated that pet owners are simply looking for a brand they know has been around for a while (Milkbone), or for a package they don’t have to search through all of the crazy and “fancy” options to find the right treat for their specific breed of dog. Or, perhaps the result of giving to a pet is much more emotionally rewarding and we have yet to find the upper threshold of how much more a mom will spend on a dog versus her children. 

Regardless, we learned the more simple or unique the packaging was, the more it stood out on the shelf. Easily identified cues using brand specific typeface, color palette and photography or illustration made identifying the qualities of the brand easier and the purchasing process simpler. 

With dog treats now a clogged category, real innovation will happen in packaging design, structure and graphic. We are looking forward to being a part of it.

Connect with Capsule if you’d like to discuss more of our findings.

About Aaron Keller

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Aaron Keller is the Managing Principal and co-founder of Capsule, the highly regarded national brand research, strategy, identity and packaging design firm located in Minneapolis, MN. A sampling of Capsule’s clients include Caribou Coffee, Fox River Socks, Red Wing Shoes, Double Cross Vodka, Target, 3M, U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo, Brown Forman, Byerly’s, Capital One, Cargill, Edens, Fisher-Price, Sears, HoMedics, Honeywell, Lawson Software, Mattel, Medtronic, Minnesota Orchestra, Outdoor Research, Panda Express, Patagonia, PrairieStone Pharmacies, Schroeder Milk, Schuler Shoes, SmartWool, Thrivent and Yakima.