Case Studies - Brand & Marketing

Heads Up For Tails: Building a Brand in an Unbranded Industry

We find out how HUFT is building a brand in an unbranded market, using a combination of soul and sound marketing strategy.

2 Dogs and Cat in HUFT products

In This Case Study

Context

Culture: By Pet-lovers for Pet-lovers

Products: Private label, India-specific

Content: Filling the gap for Indian educational content

Marketing: Focus on first-party data

Design: Integrating the offline and online experience

What’s Next?

Advice from HUFT CMO on building a category


Context

India has an estimated pet population of 28–29 million, and the pandemic-induced surge in pet ownership means this is growing rapidly. So far pet owners have been largely served by unbranded products, but Gurgaon-based Heads Up For Tails, or HUFT, is all set to change this.

Founded by Rashi Narang in 2008, HUFT has 52 experience centres across 14 cities, with 70% of them equipped with a pet spa. These stores retail both international brands as well as its own products.

HUFT’s bet to build a brand in an unorganised market is paying off now. The company’s annual recurring revenue has touched Rs. 180 crores, growing at approximately 17-18% year-on-year.

“We are a brand for pet-lovers by pet-lovers that combines science, art and heart.” 

Rashi Narang, Founder, HUFT

We caught up with Samriddh Dasgupta, the company’s Chief Marketing Officer, to get the inside track on how they approached brand-building and marketing. 

Culture: By Pet-lovers for Pet-lovers

Narang founded the brand because she was unable to find quality products for her pet in India. HUFT’s culture continues to put pets at the centre and this love for animals shows in every interface – from their website to the stores. In fact, the companies’ career page promises ‘canine and feline co-workers’ and visitors to the HUFT headquarters are likely to bump into the resident Indies – Chelsea and Elsie.

Two Indies at HUFT office
Chelsea and Elsie are HUFT’s in-house Indies

HUFT’s in-store spas have guidelines that discourage muzzles and choke collars. Brand guidelines include directions for suitable language and images – photos of Indies are encouraged and words like ‘strays’ (the brand uses ‘streeties’) are taboo, as is the tendency to over-humanise with monikers like ‘fur babies.’

HUFT’s  culture is codified in a ‘Soul document’ which every employee gets as part of induction.

The world needs more kindness and compassion. Show that you understand the problems and challenges that people are going through, and that you care enough to solve them. Do it with compassion and not through power. It is the difference between saying ‘help’ and ‘support’. ‘Help’ is a statement of power, ‘Support’ is collaborative and caring.

From HUFT’s Soul Document

Products: Private label, India-specific

Did you know that labradors in India weigh more than their counterparts anywhere else, because we tend to over-feed them? 

With India-specific issues, comes the need for India-specific products and in addition to global brands, HUFT offers over a hundred India-first products like tick and flea solutions, treats, biscuits and beds. 

The brand’s proudly desi Indian Collective even offers hand block-printed kurtas with real indigo dyes for your pet.

Dog wearing Indigo kurta
HUFT offers India-specific products, including this hand-block printed range

Private label products contribute to 30-35% of the company’s sales, rising to over 50% during winter-time. 

Range of pet care product packs
Private label products contribute 30-35% to HUFT’s sales

Content: Filling the Gap for Indian Educational Content 

HUFT teams realised that there was a dearth of information and educational content for Indian pets. There was a high search volume from India, but the results displayed were all from international sites. 

HUFT started creating content in response to the most common queries from pet parents and now has production facilities in-house. From ‘How to deal with fleas and ticks’ to ‘Can my dog eat peanuts?’ –  the brand produces a wide range of non-sales focused content. The company also sends out a newsletter with sharp tips that has an open rate of 40%+ and over 50,000 subscribers.

Every piece of educational content at HUFT begins life as a blog post and is then repurposed for other formats. Even though channels like YouTube and Instagram Reels are more effective for distribution, Dasgupta believes this approach creates structure and discipline. 

Currently, 60-70% of the traffic to HUFT’s D2C site is organic and there is a spike every time they post educational content.  

Interestingly, the company measures its content marketing success through metrics like searches and saves. When there is new educational content posted on any platform, it results in an increase in searches for the brand on Google. On Instagram, the company optimises for “saves” as an indicator of how much value the content delivered. 

A quick look at the brand’s Instagram page is evidence that the brand has found affinity with pet parents. While the 122,000 follower count is impressive, the many comments and frequent tags show genuine engagement. 

Fun Fact: HUFT also sees healthy organic traffic from LinkedIn.

Marketing: Focus on First-party Data

“We do very few ads, but very high segmenting”, says Dasgupta, “we’re against lazy marketing and cookie pollution.”

This approach needs first-party data. 

HUFT has meticulously built unified views of a customer with both offline and online data, along with granular attributes like propensity to open SMSes, preferred store visit days and pet details. 

Apart from insulating the brand from the vagaries of platforms, this ensures timely communication for customers rather than the ‘spray and pray’ approach rife in much of digital marketing. It has also helped the brand to understand what kind of products work better offline vs online.

Secondly, the brand has built “more customer journeys than we care to admit,” analysing Google Analytics and heat maps. These provide the foundation for several drip campaigns and optimisations. For instance, a new prospect at the top of the funnel might see a 40 second brand video. Depending on when she dropped off, a relevant ad will be shown featuring one product she saw in the video and one she did not. Then, depending on what she clicks, further communication is targeted.

HUFT’s latest ads show how pets influence humans and a home

HUFT spends 35-40% of its paid marketing budget on the top of the funnel, 10-12% mid-funnel and around 50% on conversions at the bottom. However, there are plans to ramp up top-of-the-funnel brand marketing. 

Infographic with marketing strategy
The HUFT omnichannel strategy

Integrating the Offline and Online Experience

The company has an online:offline sales split of 55:45 and the platform strategy is to allow for quick functional purchase online, while encouraging a more leisurely browsing experience offline.

The staff at the stores or experience centres, as HUFT prefers to call them, are trained to “counsel, not sell.” 

“Design is paramount,” says Dasgupta, “both for our offline and online experiences and the bulk of it is conceptualised and executed by our in-house team.”

Pet store interiors
A HUFT store

There are only two ways to influence human behaviour: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it. Designing with minimalism and restraint is more difficult than being loud. Whether it be performance ads or brand communication, the aesthetic principle of our minimal elegant design should be the bedrock.

From HUFT’s Soul Document

Beyond the stores, HUFT also builds its brand through several offline events ranging from workshops to marathons and collaring drives. 

In 2019, the company set-up HUFT Foundation, a not-for-profit arm that works to improve the lives of street animals in India.

2 dogs with pack of food from HUFT Foundation
HUFT Foundation aims to help animals in need

What’s Next?

On the cards is an app as well as new product lines at lower price points.

Funding of US$ 37 million in 2021 has allowed the company to increase its retail footprint and manufacturing capabilities, giving it more control over prices. 

Dasgupta also says that he wants to communicate the intersection of the company’s business and social ambitions more strongly and get more people to engage with HUFT Foundation.

“We are always thinking of how we can get more pets into households,” he says. “Research shows children who are around pets are more focused, kinder and empathetic. This is an opportunity to positively impact the next generation’s EQ.”

We say woof to that.

Advice for anyone building a category from Samriddh Dasgupta

  1. Start to solve pain points and don’t solve for speed, solve for meaning.  If you want to disrupt a category, then be patient. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
  2. Don’t throw money at the idea: You cannot build a category or community just by discounting. You need to understand people, their behaviour, their pain points. 
  3. Build a stakeholder ecosystem: Find 100 people who are passionate about the problem you’re trying to solve. They are your early customers, collaborators, evangelists. Then go about finding other partners / employees, etc. 

12 Comments

  1. Another great case study. As a marketing professional operating in the b2b – tech space, I found a lot of learnings from what HUFT does. I especially liked the soul document, the choice of words – stray vs streeties, the choice of ads shown to people who dropped off, how HUFT is allocating their ad spend etc. I am an advocate of educational content to establish a brand and playing for the long term…unfortunately there are only few founders who are patient enough and ready to invest on stuffs that dont bring in immediate return. Glad HUFT has one!!!

  2. Soul document sounds v interesting – is there a link to this? How do they actually use it. Can you give more details. Very useful as we think about our culture

  3. The bit about educational content is a brilliant catch. Many opportunities like this in India.

    1. Thank you. Yes. In an underserved and emerging consumer market like India; education content can be a big differentiator.

    1. I am a cat parent too, and I agree that perceived entry cost of our products is higher than the Amazon variants; however, we put in an inordinate amount of effort, time, design and material integrity to get you products that last, add joy and are responsibly made. We have a lot of products that are amazingly affordable , and we are working to introduce 200+ India First products to make the price more accessible.

  4. My qs is unrelated – THC team don’t moderate. How does a co that has only raised 37 mill afford a CMO like this? We are also funded but just can’t find anyone we can afford

    1. I am a part of HUFT for the strength of the vision, inspiring value system and meaningful impact that we are creating every day. Money isn’t the sole criteria to partner with leadership in your journey – you have to define the purpose.

  5. Great case study. This is the real opportunity in India – to build in unbranded markets. Not 10 min delivery!!

    1. The 10min delivery has very high loss making unit economics. Scared for the impact on the ecosystem. We are happy to build the category, as it gives us immense joy.

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