Purina’s Pet Advocate

Mary Siemiesz's insider intel has inspired a litter of innovative projects for the cold-nosed consumer, including giving pets a voice

‘Rrruhow, ruff, ruff, woof-woof, ruff.’

According to the company website, this is how Mary Siemiesz, director of product strategy and consumer communications for Nestlé Purina PetCare Canada, might introduce herself to her target consumer and describe her role. (Translated from dog as, ‘Hi, I’m a Purina pet ambassador.’)

Purina currently boasts 22 brands and nobody subscribes more to its corporate promise – ‘Your Pet, Our Passion’ – than Siemiesz. During her 18 years with the Mississauga-based pet food and care company, Siemiesz has led the marketing team in many successful product launches (including Pro Plan, Purina ONE and Beneful, which are now sold internationally). Though some work is adapted for Canada from the U.S., more than 70% of the company’s marketing is produced by Siemiesz and the rest of the

28-strong marketing team here in Canada.

Clearly the hard work is paying off: Purina is the number-two pet food company in Canada in terms of retail sales, and Siemiesz says the company has experienced double-digit growth since this time last year.

As the owner of two black Labrador retrievers – Indy and Oakley – Siemiesz believes that her passion for pets inspires her career.

‘It gives me a deeper understanding of the human/animal bond which really is at the core of everything about our business,’ she says. ‘I know first-hand the joys and anxiety associated with having dogs, and this gives me key consumer insight.’

Siemiesz previously worked at packaged goods companies Carnation Foods and ED Smith, but found her vocation when she joined Purina. ‘Knowing that I’ve helped improve the lives of pets is what gets me up in the morning,’ she says.

To that end, Siemiesz has been appointed executive director of the Purina PetCare Legacy, a fund which was announced in September 2007 to support initiatives in the pet community.

Through the new fund, Siemiesz’s biggest venture is the creation of PawsWay, a pet community and discovery centre which will focus on encouraging responsible pet ownership. Scheduled to open in June at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, the facility will feature dog- and cat-related exhibits, events and activities for pet owners. The discovery centre will not be selling pet food; the intention, Siemiesz says, is purely to enrich the lives of pets. ‘We want pet owners to understand that we truly care about the relationship they have with their pets,’ she explains.

Marketing for the new centre will incorporate PR as well as mass. ‘We know that pet owners look to friends and family for information, so word of mouth will play a critical role,’ says Siemiesz.

Purina will be giving presentations at breed clubs, training schools and tourism boards to help spread the word. The company has already leveraged its existing partnership with Flamborough, Ont.-based McCann Professional Dog Trainers by participating in an orientation night to promote the initiative.

Traditional newspaper and OOH advertising will launch imminently, and Siemiesz is working on communication messaging with one of Purina’s agencies, Toronto-based Lowe Roche. (Publicis in Toronto handles work for the Purina.ca website, and was also responsible for the pet care sites mypuppy.ca and mykitten.ca.)

Another focus for the Purina PetCare Legacy is service dog training programs. Led by Siemiesz, the fund provides support for programs like the Oakville, Ont.-based Dog Guides of Canada. In fact, Purina sponsors more than 200 annual walks across Canada, through which more than $750,000 is raised each year for the charity.

On the big-picture branding side, Siemiesz oversaw the launch of Purina’s master brand campaign in 2006, featuring print, radio, online and in-store initiatives all aimed at giving a voice to the 100-year-old company as a whole. Siemiesz says the campaign was based on the insight that nearly every pet owner has said: ‘If only my pet could talk.’ Purina positioned itself as ‘the voice of pets,’ providing pet owners with nutritional information and facts in a fun way.

As part of the campaign, Siemiesz spearheaded the launch of the talkingpets.ca microsite with Lowe Roche. The site invites pet owners to upload photos, calculate their pet IQs and send ‘purr’ and ‘woof’ mail. While Siemiesz will not disclose numbers, she says traffic has increased by 200% since this time last year.

Lowe Roche’s CCO, Geoffrey Roche, says of the microsite: ‘That effort has given Purina a strong voice, as a result of Mary pushing that through and keeping us on message.’

And Siemiesz continues to expand the company’s use of interactive marketing. In February, Purina and Lowe Roche launched a one-day banner ad on Yahoo.ca which linked to a dog-communicator tool on talkingpets.ca. The tool invites browsers to type in a command which is demonstrated by dog actions. As many as 45,000 people interacted with the banner (a CTR from Yahoo of 1.18%), and approximately 100,000 words were entered on that day.

As well, visitors to talkingpets.ca during Valentine’s week were able to send an online rose and customized message, delivered by a virtual dog. Siemiesz says plans are in the works for a new online campaign around puppy and kitten food brands, using real animals that will interact with the cursor. ‘Our business is emotion-driven, so it’s great to engage the consumer with real animals,’ says Siemiesz. ‘We need to test and learn our way into the digital world, but I believe it will be an important touchpoint for us.’

During her 60-hour work week, Siemiesz also finds time to wear the hat of spokesperson for the Purina Animal Hall of Fame, which was established 40 years ago to pay tribute to animals that have helped save human lives. Last year’s Toronto-based induction ceremony for the pet recognition program was televised on CTV’s Animal Planet show, a partnership that Siemiesz plans to repeat this year to further increase the visibility of the initiative.

Also a friend of the environment, Siemiesz is keen to bring more eco-efforts to the organization, adding that Purina plans to reduce packaging for some of its products later this year as well as use recyclable materials.

‘She has poured her heart and soul into Purina, and she gets the dog and cat food business,’ says Roche, who’s worked with Siemiesz for more than 10 years. ‘When we give presentations, Mary is always there with constructive feedback, and she’s a champion of the work. We can’t ask more of a client than that.’

Purina’s VP of product strategy and communications, Susan Molenda, says of Siemiesz: ‘Mary has an unrivaled passion and dedication to ensuring simple, consistent and integrated messaging across all Purina communication platforms. She keeps our internal teams and agency partners fired up by challenging them to push harder for the next idea.’

After the opening of the pet centre, Siemiesz’s next project will be the launch of a new cat food product. All she can reveal without tipping off competitors is that the product will have cats lining up at stores across Canada very soon.

FIVE QUESTIONS

Favourite ad on TV?
I love the Mac vs. PC campaign. Mac can do little wrong when it comes to product innovation and marketing efforts. From their digital work to the outdoor, TV and in-store, everything seems to have a consistent look, feel and message.

Book that most informs your strategic insights?
I’m pretty stuck on Kevin Roberts’ LoveMarks. He hits the nail on the head when he says that if consumers are emotionally connected to your brand, you will have ‘loyalty without reason.’ I certainly agree with this. Especially in the pet business.

Three words to describe your management style?
Open, collaborative, mentoring.

Favourite TV dog?
Lassie wins, hands down. When I was very young, I was glued to the TV set at every Lassie episode and would read the credits over and over because I wanted to know more about the trainer, Rudd Weatherwax. I never had a collie of my own, although I always wanted one.

Favourite animated dog?
I am a big Disney fan, so Goofy wins here. Disney is the best at creating memorable experiences, so I’m trying to take a page out of their book. I hope our guests at PawsWay will have a ‘magical day.’