Pets.com is taking its branded Sock Puppet to the Super Bowl, drawing the line in the kitty litter that it means to be the toughest competitor on the block in 2000.
The San Francisco-based e-tailer's spokespuppet just appeared as a 36-foot-high "falloon" (balloon tethered to a float) in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, one of the first appearances by a dot-com in the nationally televised event, and the site had a major spot buy on CBS' Thanksgiving Day football games. Next up is the Super Bowl, where Pets.com confirms it has bought at least one 30-second spot.
"Our Sock Puppet is one of the top reasons why we're going to win the Internet space for pet supplies and accessories, said John Hommeyer, VP-marketing, Pets.com.
"He's broken through the clutter, struck a chord, and is delivering a clear message about our selection and that we deliver directly to your door."
More than 2,000 e-mails have been received from Pets.com customers about the Sock Puppet; photos have been sent to the company with kids dressed up as the Sock Puppet for Halloween, and a Q&A with Sock Puppet is the main feature of the first issue of the Pets.com magazine, sent to about 1 million pet owners nationally this month. Plus, the Sock Puppet may be in line for a licensed merchandising deal as well, although Mr. Hommeyer declined comment on when such a line might be available.
The campaign "clearly has given this company a tremendous boost ahead of the rest of the competitors in this space," said Michele Slack, analyst at New York consultancy Jupiter Communications. "They're building a brand certainly, but they're also building an emotional connection with consumers," she said, mentioning Sock Puppet and outreach events Pets.com has done in New York, such as handing out Frisbees at dog runs. "They're building tremendous relationships with pet owners."
The $20 million campaign is handled by Pets.com's agency TBWA/Chiat/Day, San Francisco.
LAGGING IN TRAFFIC
For all the barking going on, Pets.com isn't the most-visited site in its category. According to Media Metrix, in October PETsMart.com had 1.1 million unique visitors, Petopia had 559,000 and Pets.com had 551,000, followed by Petstore.com with 303,000.
Still, industry watchers are betting on Pets.com. In April Amazon.com took an almost 50% stake in the site and in June Amazon announced it had contributed to a $50 million round of financing for the pets site along with Hummer Winblad Venture Partners and Bowman Capital Management. Pets.com said at the time that the round of financing was aimed at promoting the Pets.com brand name, while Amazon said the investment was part of its larger effort to move away from books into other areas. After a third round of funding, in November, total investments in the site now total nearly $100 million.
While Pets.com claims Amazon doesn't have day-to-day operational input, "I'm on the phone every day talking to someone from Amazon," Mr. Hommeyer said. "They are the pre-eminent leaders in e-space and we look to their expertise." he said.
There are cross-marketing opportunities with Amazon; a cross-link to Pets.com already exists on Amazon's site.
"They have 13 million satisfied customers . . . 60% of those own pets, and they already have their credit cards warmed up [from shopping at] Amazon.com."
ANNUAL SALES GROW 10% TO 15%
This is a hot category. Overall pet product sales amount to $31 billion and are growing at a 10% to 15% clip annually, industry executives said. Some 58 million U.S. households have pets.
Some sites, such as Pets.com, PETsMART and Petstore.com, are establishing themselves to be online superstores; others, such as Allpets.com and PetPlanet.com are positioning themselves as offering community and information, with a marketplace thrown in, while still others, such as Petopia.com combine wide product selection, information about pet health and well-being and community services.
Eyeing the emerging competition, PETsMART.com jump-started its site by tapping Web venture PetJungle to help build its site. Since the beginning of the fall TV season, it has been running national cable and prime-time spots; maintained a strong online presence through banners and sponsorships through AOL Shopping, couponing site Coolsavings.com, Lycos and Excite@Home; as well as print ads featuring Warren, the PETsMART driver who rolls up the back of the truck to let the entire PETsMART store fall out.
"Unlike [Pets.com], we don't have to spend time worrying about building distribution or warehouses because we already have all of that in place," said Mark Siegel, PETsMART marketing director. "We have 12 years of retail experience, not eight months like Pets.com and other new competitors, and besides, how much can they know about pets in that time. We figure we're starting at Step 5 with the Internet . . . while our competition is back at Step 1."
PETsMART, with a $50 million account handled by Publicis, Seattle, is backed fully by its 600 bricks-and-mortar stores nationally, with both concerns and product returns handled at retail stores.
"If you're not satisfied, you can drive to the local PETsMART store and talk to a real person," said Mr. Siegel.
PETsMART piggybacks on the ads from its chain of stores, including the monthly free-standing insert that is distributed to 40 million households via Sunday newspapers.
Petstore.com, rather than making itself out to be a superstore, is positioning itself as the online neighborhood pet store, complete with the ability to deliver overnight freshwater and saltwater fish via its recent acquisition of Flying Fish Express.
Petstore.com, which recently opened a 130,000-foot warehouse to support its business growth, this year has been running TV spots, primarily in New York and San Francisco, that pick up on true-life pet situations, said Steve Reinhardt, VP-marketing of Petstore.com.
Black Rocket, San Francisco, handles the site's $10 million account, which includes radio spots and online banners, buttons and relationships with About.com, Ask Jeeves, LookSmart, Lycos, real estate site SpringStreet, Women.com Network and Yahoo!.
NO SOCK PUPPETS
"What we've found is that while people enjoy shopping at small pet stores, they're concerned about price and selection," he said. "We realize that the human component is very important--helping people find solutions, and to do it in a way that obviously leads to commerce as well. . . . but we want to do it in a warm, more human way, without goofy cartoons or sock puppets."
Petstore.com has formed a partnership with the American Animal Hospital Association, whose 23 million veterinarians contribute content and answer visitor questions about animal health.
Meanwhile Allpets.com positions itself as an alternative pets site that takes a soft-sell approach. It was created four years ago by people who wanted to showcase all they knew and could gather about cats and dogs. Relaunched in October, the site now was brought in some outside investors and recast itself as a content community site, with a commerce angle as well.
"We're creating a destination for people to come and meet other pet enthusiasts," said Patti Bodner, chief marketing officer of Allpets.com.
The site now touts itself as the only pet site to incorporate rich-media techniques, such as streaming video. One such 60-second video, running in the Petflicks section, is all about grooming techniques. If you like the products, pop over to the marketplace, it advises.
"We're integrating products and information throughout the site," said Ms. Bodner. "Again, it's all about building community, providing information and selling products that have real value to them."
Allpets.com in November struck a strategic partnership with the Right Start, which will feature Allpets.com in its kids products retail stores and the 2 million catalogs it distributes. "We're really going after the same market . . . . in that women are the primary caretakers of their families and are the primary caretakers of the family pets," Ms. Bodner said.
PPG Advertising, Los Angeles, handles the $5 million to $10 million campaign, which to date consists of radio endorsements in selected markets and classified ads.
Petopia relies on the offline support of retailer Petco, which owns a 20% equity stake in the site and has a strategic alliance with it. Petco's site directs shoppers to the Petopia site. Since August, Petopia has been promoting its vision of the petcare world, via a "Internet Pet Paradise" campaign produced by Swirl, Los Angeles. The company held a dog-walk promotion in New York this fall and is planning additional events for 2000. The budget is in the $15 million to $20 million range.
The "Pet Paradise" theme is a carefully chosen moniker said, Roland Jacobs, VP-marketing, since "we feel we have the most pet-centric site, the right food, the right products, the right information."
Petopia recognizes that people who love pets often have questions about those pets "and we want to be known as the site with the information and the understanding about their passion about their pets," Mr. Jacobs said.
Petopia is not about trying to outdo competitors such as Pets.com or Petstore.com, in that "people aren't going to entirely give up buying their petcare needs in the offline world," he said. "But they are going to look for sites that can provide them the healthcare and behavioral information they need to enjoy happier lives with their pets."
PetPlanet.com, San Francisco, is betting on a celebrity campaign to get noticed. The site recently awarded its $15 million to $25 million account to Picket Communications, San Francisco. It is planning a national campaign in the first quarter of next year, featuring such notables as actress Susan Sarandon, industry sources said.
For the holiday season, PetPlanet.com is spearheading a number of promotions and philanthropic campaigns, one of which will provide presents to homeless pets, a campaign very much in the spirit of what PetPlanet is all about, said Steve Marder, co-founder and CEO of PetPlan-et.com. By registering on the site, the company will, in conjunction with some of its key manufacturer partners (including American Agco and Ralston Purina Co.), donate a present (either a toy or a treat) to a humane society or other animal welfare agency in every state.
"Our focus is that we're not just a store selling product, shipping pet food or live animals," said Mr. Marder. "We're about providing deep content, relationships and applications . . . all focused on pet families, individuals who care for or live with one or more pets . . . and our campaign will reflect that differentiation and branding message."
Amid the flurry of pet site advertising and promotions, the jury is still out on who will dominate. ComputerLetter, an industry newsletter published by Technologic Partners, named Pets.com the leader of the pet industry pack based on its deep pockets, experience of CEO Julie Wainright and the backing of Amazon.com. That sentiment is largely echoed by Andrew Bartels, senior research analyst-electronic commerce, Giga Information Group.
However, Mr. Bartels noted, "It's too early to name a standout at this point."
Copyright November 1999, Crain Communications Inc.