et care is big business in the United States. Americans will spend an estimated $55.5 billion on their furry friends this year alone, making one thing blatantly obvious — we love our animal companions. Pet owners seemingly spare no expense when it comes to the care of their fluffy, scaly, slimy buddies, as that figure, reported by the American Pet Products Association, includes the cost of food and treats, over-the-counter medicine, supplies such as crates, leashes, collars, etc., veterinary care, grooming, boarding, and the animals themselves.
Not surprisingly, almost half of that pie — $21.3 billion — goes toward food and treats. Makes sense, as food is necessary for survival, and pet owners will argue that live animals are exponentially more enjoyable than dead ones. However, not all kibble is created equal, and it comes in a range of flavors, nutritional values, ingredients, shapes, and of course, price points. The sheer plethora of pellets, treats, rawhides, etc., along with pet owners' willingness to spoil Fido, has contributed to a not-so-happy side effect — obesity.
In a 2012 study conducted by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 52.5 percent of dogs and 58.3 percent of cats are obese — that's roughly 80 million fat cats and tubby terriers waddling around American homes, scarfing up Snausages like it's nobody's business.
Actually, it is somebody's business — and a rather lucrative one at that. The pet-food industry spews new varietals on what seems like a daily basis, and eager-to-please dog and cat owners eat it up. There's limited-ingredient kibble for pups with sensitive tummies, hairball-control recipes for kitties that hack up, well, hairballs, and even organic pet food that boasts ingredients such as venison, green beans, and wild rice for pooches with discerning palates. And perhaps not surprisingly, given the current state of bloated affairs, a healthy chunk of the pet-food market is dedicated to weight-management products.
Thus, the proliferation of plump pets isn't due to a lack of low-calorie foods and diet plans. Such products are readily available, often comparably priced, and proven effective when feeding guidelines are followed. And therein lies the belly rub, according to Hill's Pet Nutrition Inc., a pet-food manufacturer based in Topeka, KS. Based on internal research, Hill's found that pet owners don't always follow feeding plans due to: 1) guilt about "depriving" their pets when controlling portions, and 2) frustration with plans that don't work at home.
That's where Hill's Metabolic Advanced Weight Solution comes in. According to the company, the plan is based on a holistic approach to balanced nutrition rather
than simply decreasing the amount of food given. So it leaves pet owners feeling less guilty and more in control because they aren't completely denying their husky hounds and tubby tabbies sustenance; they're providing healthier morsels. In fact, Hill's asserts that its plan had an 88-percent success rate during in-home product trials. And among a sea of weight-loss programs that promise — but often fail — to trim fat, that 88-percent figure is no small potatoes.
With an effective product and an expanding target market, Hill's wanted to spread the word to the veterinarians and vet technicians it hoped would evangelize the product to pet owners. "Weight-management plans might work in a clinical environment, but vets realize a pet's home is a very different setting with very different challenges," says Amy Gregory, CTSM, senior veterinary conference planner at Hill's. "We wanted to educate vets and vet technicians on the effectiveness of our new plan, and to hammer home the 88-percent success rate, in hopes that they would then recommend it to their patients." And what better place to do that than the Western Veterinary Conference, which draws close to 10,000 vets, vet techs, and animal-care professionals each year.
But Gregory knew she couldn't simply set up shop with a boring booth, hand out some literature, and yell, "88 percent!" at passersby in order for the message to stick. No, she needed an intriguing exhibit, educational presentation, and all-consuming marketing program to ensure attendees couldn't help but soak up the stat. And for that, she turned to the company's ad agency, Grey Healthcare Group (GHG), and Elk Grove, IL-based exhibit house, 3D Exhibits Inc.
Barking up the Right Tree
Six months before the February 2013 show at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas, Hill's, 3D Exhibits, and GHG met for a gathering of the minds. The group pored over data from the in-home trials and info about what makes Hill's Metabolic Advanced Weight Solution different from the competition. Eventually, a nugget of an idea was generated. "Bits and pieces of our discussion created a groundswell that led us to the realization that proper eating starts in the home," says George Furman, vice president and account executive at 3D Exhibits. "So, we decided to build one."
Not only was a house going to stand out on the show floor like Tofurkey in a pile of Butterballs, but also it would serve as a subtle reminder that unlike other diet plans, the Metabolic Advanced Weight Solution works at home and not just in a lab. Furthermore, Gregory believed the booth-as-home design would become a natural hangout spot for attendees, thus providing more valuable face-to-face time with the very people she wanted to turn into brand evangelists.
But for the Hill's booth to become veterinarian central, attendees first had to know the address. So approximately two weeks before the WVC opened, Hill's sent preregistered attendees an invitation to a so-called housewarming party, set to take place the day the show floor opened. The mailer featured an image of the Metabolic Advanced Weight Solution bag and the company's booth number, along with the text: "You're invited to a special housewarming party where we will be unveiling the latest advancement in weight loss nutrition that works at home."
A similar call to action appeared in a registration-bag insert, a full-page ad in the show daily, and a
"Bits and pieces of our discussion created a groundswell that led us to the realization that proper eating starts in the home. So, we decided to build one."
page in the WVC's "Vet Detective Exhibit Hall Experience" booklet, a sort of scavenger-hunt activity that encourages attendees to explore the exhibit hall. In addition to inviting attendees to the booth, Hill's used pre- and at-show marketing to promote its sponsored symposium and sponsored luncheons, all of which included discussions about the company's Metabolic Advanced Weight Solution.
This is the part where most people bark, "What's in it for me?" The answer is simple — branded swag. At a show like the WVC, giveaways are shoved into bags with all the fervor of a yellow lab chasing a tennis ball. With that in mind, Hill's came prepared with fleece blankets, tote bags, tumblers, books, and T-shirts. The items featured the product name and an "88%" with the text, "in-home weight loss success."
As if ads, mailers, tchotchkes, and luncheons weren't enough to promote it's "88%" message, Hill's also sponsored the opening ceremony, which featured a presentation by Dr. Daniel Aja, director of U.S. professional and veterinary affairs for Hill's — and a delightful surprise.
No Place Like Home
When attendees arrived at the convention center Sunday, Feb. 17, Dr. Aja took the stage in a nondescript ballroom for his portion of the presentation. In front of a crowd of thousands, he extolled the proven benefits of Hill's Metabolic Advanced Weight Solution, including, of course, the now ubiquitous 88-percent in-home success rate. As he dropped stats and trial findings, an audience member stood up and started singing "O-o-h child, things are gonna get easier." Then another stood up and joined in. And another. It soon became clear that this wasn't a spontaneous act of musical inspiration, but rather a flash mob orchestrated by GHG comprising professional singers wearing neon-green T-shirts with the "88%" figure stamped on them.
"We sought to emphasize that Hill's Metabolic Advanced Weight Solution makes pet owners' — and veterinarians' — lives much easier," says Jason Eberly, associate account director at GHG. "So we strategically placed singers throughout the crowded ballroom and one-by-one, they stood up, joined in, and made their way to the stage to finish the song together." The deviation from the conventional keynote format created palpable interest among attendees, who sprinted to booth 1527 practically drooling for more information about Hill's and its new weight-management products.
But instead of finding the typical booth accoutrements, such as some pipe and drape and a few flatscreen monitors, attendees discovered a welcoming structure resembling a suburban home from the good part of town. The 35-by-50-foot stylized abode, with its mint-green siding, faux-stone accents, expansive patio, and front porch, beckoned visitors to come on in and make themselves at home. "We wanted to create a space that made people feel as though they had left the show floor and stopped over at a friend's house for coffee," Furman says. To that end, there was no hard-sell pitch, and very little by way of promotional signage. In fact, most of the exhibit's prime marketing real estate was devoted to customer testimonials, which were displayed on three monitors embedded in window frames located on an aisle-side wall.
"The message is 88 percent, and that's the one thing you can't help but take away after experiencing the program."
As attendees explored the space and mingled with peers, staffers invited those that wanted to learn more about Hill's Metabolic Advanced Weight Solution to enter the exhibit's living room for a short presentation. Featuring a small, elevated stage, modern décor, and about two-dozen cube-shaped stools, the laid-back space further fostered the "we're just at home, having a conversation among friends about pet obesity" vibe evident throughout the rest of the booth. After the presentation, attendees grabbed a cup of coffee from the kitchen and headed to the patio, which featured bistro tables, chairs, and faux-stone flooring.
While those that made it to the housewarming party at 1:30 p.m. on Monday enjoyed cupcakes, a fleece blanket, and face time with booth staffers, everyone that attended the presentation received a branded tumbler and "Boothe's Small Animal Formulary 6th Edition" (a popular reference book), and most visitors received branded tote bags. In addition to the swag, Hill's hoped visitors received something else — its "88% in-home weight loss success" message.
Home Sweet Home
After the last houseguest left the exhibit and the WVC closed its doors, Hill's had distributed approximately 1,000 cupcakes, 3,000 branded tote bags, 400 T-shirts, 1,000 fleece blankets, and 2,124 tumblers and books. But did attendees remember the omnipresent key message? To find out, 3D Exhibits conducted an exit survey that revealed a whopping 97 percent of respondents could repeat the message — 12 percent more than Hill's original goal.
"The message is 88 percent, and that's the one thing you can't help but take away after experiencing the program," said one Sizzle Awards judge. "The manner in which they delivered the message was great, but the consistency of delivery and the fact that they didn't dilute it was stellar."
That consistency paid off, as 96 percent of respondents reported that they were likely or very likely to prescribe Hill's Metabolic Advanced Weight Solution. In fact, the company took 155 orders for 18,218 pounds of food on site. That's almost twice as much as the previous year and nearly double the goal for the 2013 show.
Indeed, by pairing a simple yet memorable key message with an unforgettable exhibit experience, Hill's successfully trained veterinarians to recommend its food on command. Not bad
for a pet project.