Image: Equator created a premiumised design fo the Waitrose Mill Hill Farm range. Photo: courtesy of Equator

Whether large or small, fluffy or wire haired, it’s no secret that we love our pets. Which is why it’s not too surprising that the market for food and treats for cats and dogs is worth approximately £1.6bn in multiple grocery.

While more natural food has appeared in specialist pet stores across the UK, major supermarkets have yet to branch out into a wider variety of premium designs. However, this may be about to change. Waitrose has dived into this developing market with the newly launched, exclusively for Waitrose Mill Hill Farm range of premium pet food.

The premium product is reflected in the packaging for the range. Designed by Equator, the packaging features natural queues including illustrations of farm buildings, rural settings, and both friendly pets and owners to reinforce the brand image of nutritious and healthy dried food made from quality natural ingredients produced and packaged in Norfolk.

We spoke to creative director Howard Wright and account director Lynn Palmer from Equator to find out more about the stand-out premium packaging design.

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Eloise McLennan: The exclusively for Waitrose Mill Hill Farm range is quite a new venture for the supermarket, did that give you more freedom to create original ideas?

Lynn Palmer: It was a very creative brief. The product itself was developed from scratch in conjunction with Waitrose and they were contributing to the recipes that we use and they were also very hands on with the design right from the brief all the way through the various stages that we work through.

We completed a market review, because in the specialist retailers, such as pets at home, they do have what we class as super-premium with natural as part of that and premium is generally spilt between scientific ranges and also the natural products that have fresher ingredients, fresh chicken, vegetables and things like that are quite well established within the specialist retailers but none of the big supermarkets at the time had anything like this on their shelves.

What was interesting during the process was that we soon realised that it's not the cats and dogs themselves that are going to the shop and buy the products. So who are the people who are going to be buying it? We did a bit of research into the type of person who would buy this natural product for their pet, what they were like, what brands they were into from food to magazines and other areas, what their lifestyles were like and then you begin to get a really good mindset of what they're like as a person.

Howard Wright: What we tried to set up was gangs of people, so we were looking at the comparison between pet food and baby food, which for us is so close it's unbelievable. People are buying products for something or someone that they love implicitly and as such, they sort of project onto them a higher well-being. So it was a case of understanding what was in the mindset of the gang that we actually wanted to design this for. It was very much a case of mapping out territories of where other brands were sitting and where we thought there were big gaps and by looking at what human behaviour is and how food is being developed for humans and that real, personal touch and provenance that it's no longer the shiny manicured animal. It is more about communicating with them and having a conversation in the tone of voice that they actually want to listen to.

EM: What was the original brief that you were given?

HW: They wanted us to premium-ise the brand. I think they – both the supplier and Waitrose – were looking at it from a point of view of where premium brands sit at the moment in a retailer environment and to us that was what was happening last year or the year before. It's that very, sort of, black beautiful photography, which is still very relevant, but we went back in and said 'wait a minute, is this entirely right?'

EM: You said you found gaps in the pet food market, what were the gaps that you found?

"The gaps in the market were very much about suppliers"

HW: The gaps in the market were very much about suppliers, in previous times you had a very scientific area, there's been a big influx of what the product can actually do for the animal, whether it’s a shiny coat, a wet nose, good joints, strong teeth etc and a very detailed scientific explanation of it. So you have a very good core structure of products that really explain exactly what vitamins, minerals and what combinations were right for what age, type and size of dog.

There's a lot of work gone into that because the core pet food area had all started to do it. So the likes of you Whiskas and your Pedigree Chum had already started to put ages and sizes on so they've extended into that area and then another area was that sort of pampering feel, so there was a lot of the pampered pooch, pampered cat, but that all gears around the small lapdogs and the very tiny manicured cats and there wasn't that, for us, the area that was very much being left out, which if you look at food to go and ready-meals for humans, that sort of new fake-baking scenario or the pseudo-cook, where it's no longer just get a tray, stab it, put it in a microwave and eat it, you have to do a bit of work to it  that interest in food which has been going on now for a couple of years has to roll into what else happens in the family.

EM: How did you try to convey that in the packaging?

HW: What we wanted to do was actually show how packaging would come from the source so if you look at the back of pack, it's how a recipe would be portrayed so it's showing you the ingredients and the types of products that would probably go into it. If you look at the chicken, it's got a whole chicken on the scales, and it’s there to show that it's got a lot of chicken in there, it's got peas, carrots, herbs and potatoes and it looks good enough for me to eat.

EM: Why did you decide to move away from standard photography and use illustrations on the packaging?

HW: The idea behind it was that we wanted to show that this that moment of enjoyment that your core brands all have – the dog pleading looking out, direct eye contact or if it goes more premium then maybe looking down at the food. It's very tried and tested and it works for certain brands, but the idea about this was to create a certain environment that this is where the name comes from – Mill Stream Farm – it's about where these products are made, it's where the dogs are queuing up to get into to actually eat the food. It's trying to give it an environment, rather than saying 'ok you've gone to look for dog food, you've walked down the pet food aisle and you're looking at the category where dog food is stacked,how many more cues do we need to say that this is actually dog food?'

"We wanted to create an illustration that is unusual for people to see nowadays."

What we're trying to do is pull it apart and the use of illustration – rather than the use of photography – is to give it a more crafted feel. We wanted to create an illustration that is unusual for people to see nowadays and we wanted that hand crafted feel of the way that we create the packaging to reflect how the actual product is being made and how the recipe of the product, how the product is actually being bought to life, but that wasn't just a case of slapping that same mixture into a bag and hope that somebody buys it because they like the look of the dog on it. What we wanted to show was the love and the care that has gone into it, and that is reflected in the actual packaging as much as it is in the product itself.

LP: One thing that was key as we were developing the design was, and this is something you don't see at all on the marketplace as far as I'm aware, is the interaction with the human and owner with the animal. It’s part and parcel the same thing, you're buying this product for your pet and you're going to feed it to them, it’s nice to have you interacting with them on the pack as well.

EM: What has the reaction to the natural design been like? How did Waitrose respond?

"We were actually telling a story with the packaging."

HW: They loved the fact that we were actually telling a story with the packaging. They very much engaged with it. They were quite surprised, I think they were expecting the usual photograph of an animal with some beautiful typography which I'm sure would really hit the market well, but they loved the difference in this and so far we believe, although we haven't had the figures yet, that it's doing well. We do know that it's outselling what was there previously.

LP: The great news is the actual product inside really delivers, you can see you've got a premium design there, the packaging is great and then you get it out of the bag and it's delivering on flavour and then the pets want to come back and eat more.

EM: How do you think the premium pet food market will develop in the future?

LP: It’s definitely a growth area. People’s budgets are not as tight these days and they can splash out a little bit more on their pets and want to do that. Also there's concern about pet obesity and extending the quality of the pet’s life, they want to give them the best products they can. I think people are always happy to trade up.