What cat food says about the cat owner

When I teach about positioning, I often refer to the market for cat food, using an example unashamedly stolen from my fabulous former colleague, David James.


There are 2 key aspects to positioning. One is to find an angle for the product that is unique and, hence, differentiates it from the competitors. Otherwise, you enter a “me-too” scenario where the only reason why someone might buy A instead of B is because one is cheaper than the other. The other aspect is to communicate that difference, through all your marketing initiatives, to reinforce the positioning.


David James used to illustrate this concept by comparing two brands of cat food, Whiskas and Sheba. Both products perform the same basic function: feed your pet cat. But while Whiskas’s positioning emphasises the nutritional benefits of the product, Sheeba’s emphasises the pleasure of owning a cat. Accordingly, Whiskas’s adverts showcase the cat exploring their environment, growing up, etc. By contrast, Sheba’s show the interaction between the cat and its owner – usually, a single woman of refined tastes, as in this advert featuring Eva Longoria:


And that’s not all. The packaging is very different, too. The Whiskas packaging displayed in the adverts can be easily opened – even with your teeth, while putting down your groceries shopping. Sheba’s, however, requires both hands, maybe even a fork, to transfer it to an elegant plate our saucer.


How the products are described varies, too. When you buy Whiskas, you get ‘tasty textures of chicken’, whereas when you buy Sheba you get a ‘terrine of poultry’. The choice of words makes the latter sound more like cuisine than pet food.


And the differences continue. The point being that positioning is, essentially, a mental construct. Cat food is cat food – but the choice of words, colours, packaging, etc make each product appeal to completely different buyers.


At this point, David would open a package of Whiskas and a package of Sheba, pick up a couple of forks, and invite his audience to try both to see if they could spot the difference. The volunteer, when there was one (usually, David would do the ‘taste test’ himself), would generally conclude that the 2 products were pretty much the same, as far as taste was concerned.


The bottom line of this example is that people do not buy product features. People buy feelings and emotions – be it the feeling of confidence, or the feeling of sophistication.


I remembered this example today, when I read a post by Seth Godin entitled ‘Cat food is for people’. Seth says that what’s important in cat food (or other products, really) is how they make us feel. To take the point further he asks:

“(I)f you think cat food is for cats, how come it doesn’t come in mouse flavour?



There you go. Mice would do. Cats might even prefer it?! But how many cat owners would wince at the thought of handling a pouch of minced mice?


2 thoughts on “What cat food says about the cat owner

  1. Interesting thoughts. And in the case of Whiskas and Sheba (or in my case, replace that by any branded dog food you can find on the supermarket shelves), there’s indeed little difference than positioning. Although, if you go to a supermarket, you can also see shelfspace has a big influence, too. Where it’s placed, how many space you get as a brand, etcetera.
    Still, your post also made me think about this: consumer information. Not just what’s on the packaging, but also what can be found on internet. We really tend to focus on nutritional value and additives when we buy or dog’s food. And try to learn on the net what’s good, and what’s not.
    And the things we have bought for our pet, well, yes, it sometimes makes you wince. Not just when you see a bag of dried intestines, but especially when you open it. But, hey, he loves it… sometimes.
    That in turn brings me to a final point: even the mice are more for humans than for the cat. I’ve seen several cats at least partially eat mice, but for them it seems to be more about the hunt than about the food. Maybe the chasing/hunting of mice is more something we as humans are projecting on cats, than that hey actually love to eat it. I once had a cat that loved to eat corn. Goes to show, even those who warn for the trap of marketing, might have been caught in it themselves :).


    1. Yes, and not just shelf space but also which stores. I wonder who did the taste test for the dried intestine, Arjan 😉

      I agree about the chasing comment. Sometimes it’s a gift, too: they come home with half dead mice, and put them at your feet… but won’t eat them.

      I have this friend who lives in a farm, and she commented on how her cat will often come home with a really fat tummy and not be interested in the pet food that she offers, at all. The next farm is really far away – so, unless the cat is making a very long journey, it is unlikely that the full tummy is due to pet food. I really wonder what that cat is eating…


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