In this edition of #StraightTalk, our own Satoru Wakeshima had the pleasure of speaking with Ryan Thomas, VP of Marketing, Pet Division, The JM Smucker Company. Ryan was an integral team member working on the Milk-Bone® brand architecture and brand redesign project recently completed in partnership with CBX. Let’s check in to get the inside scoop on all things Milk-Bone.
Satoru: Milk-Bone is in the middle of launching a major redesign, reigniting growth through innovation and portfolio expansion. Tell us a little about how you and the team approached a project of this size, with such a significant and well-known household brand.
Ryan: I’ve been in and around the pet business for a while, have worked in innovation, and currently lead the J.M. Smucker Co. Pet Marketing division, but as a pet parent, a natural behavior is to explore variety. I’m certainly loyal to the brands in our portfolio. But I wondered not only from a professional perspective, but also as a dog parent, as we contemplated how to position Milk-Bone for the future, keeping in mind the brand’s heritage of more than 100 years: How could we set it up for the next 100 years?
Well, first there is the treatment of the visuals in the dog and treat space, and we said, “Wow! That has changed over the past five to 15 years.” Brands in mass retail or pet specialty were starting to merchandise brands that used different treatments, colors, shapes, and iconography. As a pet parent, my dogs love Milk-Bone. They love all things Milk-Bone. I genuinely believe that they enjoy it when I give them Milk-Bone, and I wanted that joy to show up on the packaging.
Satoru: The brand is 113 years old, it’s been the category leader in dog treats throughout its history. What was really the driving decision to look at a brand refresh now?
Ryan: I think two reasons. One, Milk-Bone is a healthy brand. And a healthy business is one that is constantly looking back at itself and seeing what it can do better. As a brand team, as good brand stewards over the past two years, we had stared at the brand and said we can do better on our packaging. Our brand deserves to be in the 21st century, to be blunt.
The other driving force was that our country had changed. We know that many millennial and Gen Z households were having their first fur-babies to start their families. There was just a cultural shift in dog parents in general, and what those dog parents are expecting, and how that “treat” moment with their pet is manifested.
Satoru: What did you see as the biggest concern going into this project? And what did you see as the biggest opportunity?
Ryan: The biggest concern is we are a 113-year-old brand, and we have a household penetration that is the highest in the category—our awareness is really high. So, people know Milk-Bone, they know the box, our loyalty rates are some of the highest in the category. We also know from research that consumers shop by the image of the dog that’s on the front of our package. Disrupting the neurological habitual pathways that have been created is dangerous. If it takes them more than a quarter of a second more than it did last time to shop and find their favorite treat, that’s a problem. I think that was what kept me up at night.
The opportunity is that we have such a rich tapestry of Milk-Bone brand codes and icons, and so how do we amplify the things that work really well even more? We know dog imagery works really well. We know consumers shop with emotion, and the pet category is driven by love and adoration for our pets. We brought that emotion of the dog to life front and center, in their eyes and in their smile, which is very compelling and memorable. It was not just the photography itself, but the placement, positioning, size, color—everything working together. We selected specific packaging formats and the matte overlay to really make the photography pop off the package. We made sure to showcase the actual size of the Milk-Bone treat, making it look very realistic on pack. Those three things were an opportunity for us to amplify the strong brand assets and icons we had, and push into where the zeitgeist is today in terms of how consumers perceive brands, how they make purchases, and develop loyalty to a brand.
Satoru: You’ve worked on a lot of iconic brands over the years. With a brand as iconic as Milk-Bone, how did you know when it was too far? Or when it wasn’t far enough?
Ryan: On a brand like Milk-Bone, I think you know it in your gut, you know, when you see it. Sometimes it’s fun to reflect on the many, many meetings and reviews understanding and evaluating how the brief shows up in those specific segments and areas of jobs for consumers. There’s an intuitive element to it, and then we conducted consumer testing because that is imperative when you’re going to touch a brand as iconic and as broad as Milk-Bone. I think consumers told us where we went too far, and I love where we landed; I don’t think I would change a thing.
Satoru: Were there any “Aha!” moments that you considered a breakthrough in the process?
Ryan: There was this aspect of joy that Milk-Bone has in its essence, and the manifestation of that felt right and authentic to the brand. Once we started to have that rich conversation around, “How do we make sure we look at each package and ensure that joy is coming through?” because joy is the heart of the brand. When we evaluated creative along the way, I always asked, do I get a feeling when I look at this? And do I get a feeling that is different from what I get today when I look at our current packaging? That’s what I love about marketing—the art of it.
Interested in learning more? Check out our case study: https://cbx.com/work/lifes-more-fun-with-a-dog-package-design/