Prior to COVID-19 completely changing the way we, as consumers behave, the pet industry was leading in terms of innovation, cross-sector development and retail growth.\u00a0\r\n\r\nOne of the industry leaders, Pets at Home, reported record sales for year ending 26th March 2020, exceeding the \u00a31bn mark. Pet food brands large and small maximised direct to consumer models to provide pet nutrition when non-essential retail closed down. And not to mention the buoyancy of K-beauty, pet-alcohol and canine retreat services. The pet industry has been growing at an impressive rate.\u00a0\r\n\r\nWith most brands and businesses looking towards the new-normal, what lies ahead for the pet sector? With services such as boarding, training and grooming all bound by different safety measures, and retail set to be hit as we plummet into an anticipated recession, how can pet providers come out on top? And how can those brands who have benefited from a surge of new customers in lockdown drive loyalty when life returns to normal?\u00a0\r\nDigital acceleration\u00a0\r\nDirect to consumer will continue to be a key retail channel as we move forward. Pet food brands are already leading the way with robust models from the likes of Butternut Box and Tails.com, offering personalised services based on dynamic algorithms.\u00a0\r\n\r\nNielsen estimate that the D2C category will be worth in excess of $200bn by 2025. Perhaps a good indication that more services should focus efforts on D2C and e-commerce platforms. Pet travel provider, Pets Pyjamas reported an increase in web traffic by 30% just one month into lockdown, showcasing a distinct shift towards online in consumer shopping habits across the sector.\u00a0\r\n\r\nWith more services being restricted by social distancing and safety measures, there is likely to be a surge in online innovation, including virtual veterinary consultations, canine training classes and behavioural services. In fact, tech start-up, Vet-AI has recently launched an app providing accessible and affordable veterinary care in just a few taps.\u00a0\r\n\r\nBrands investing in their digital offering will benefit from the online demand that lockdown has generated amongst pet owners. Pivoting existing business models will help brands and businesses to remain relevant and fit into these rapidly changing times by adapting to our new normal.\u00a0\r\nData, data everywhere\r\nDigital acceleration not only opens a new sales channel, but also acts as a gateway to better data management. The more you can learn about your customers, the more you can personalise your approach and offering, enabling a platform for building better loyalty.\u00a0\r\n\r\nFrom tailoring your promotions and offering, to building a stronger connection by recognising special dates, such as pets\u2019 birthdays or vaccination dates, building a customer profile will aid in improving customer engagement and in turn improve retention and build loyalty.\u00a0\r\n\r\nApplying insight and data-driven marketing can help to better understand who your users are, how they behave and what they like, meaning you can create an offering that differentiates you from competitors.\u00a0\r\nPet wellbeing\u00a0\r\nFor pet owners, lockdown strengthened the bond they have with their pets. As social contact with friends and family became hugely restricted, people turned to pets for that much needed companionship. Even those who didn\u2019t have a pet were seeking a furry friend, with new ownership and dog-sharing services spiking during UK lockdown.\u00a0\r\n\r\nThe key thing for brands to remember is that it\u2019s the love for pets that drives purchasing decisions, not consumerism. As key pet services, such as dog groomers reopen, pet owners will look to businesses and brands that offer reassurance for the safety and wellbeing of their pet. Understanding the Government guidelines and putting clear and stringent safety measures in place will help to build consumer confidence and recover business as quickly as possible.\u00a0\r\n\r\nOther services will follow in demand, routine veterinary check-ups will be back on the cards, as will more holistic wellbeing services. Many pet behaviourists are anticipating a bout of separation anxiety as owners return to work, leaving dogs and cats home alone for sections of the day when they\u2019ve become accustomed to having company. It\u2019s also likely that more people will engage dog walking and pet sitting services as a result of spending so much time caring for pets during lockdown.\u00a0\r\n\r\nCOVID-19 has left us with a new appreciation for our health and this will extend to our pets. Pet supplements, vitamins, tailored diets and healthy treats will be a key focus for those of us wanting to do the best by our trusted family pet.\u00a0\r\nCompassionate communications\r\nOnline content consumption unsurprisingly rocketed during lockdown and it was those brands that created engaging, relevant content that came out on top. Think Ikea\u2019s flatpack meatball recipe or Pizza Express shifting their content strategy to provide all the family with games and activities to do at home.\u00a0\r\n\r\nConsumers don\u2019t want to be told they need your product or service; they need to feel an affinity and emotional connection towards a brand. This became apparent with the shift to shopping local, with a 31% increase in consumers supporting homegrown brands.\u00a0\r\n\r\nSo, what are the key factors to consider when developing a comms approach that will drive loyalty when life returns to normal?\r\n\r\n \tPut yourself in your customers\u2019 shoes. What can your company do that makes a potential customer think \u2018That\u2019s brilliant and really helpful\u2019? A personalised approach for different audience segments is key and this is even more crucial in the current environment. People are understandably anxious and so unless messaging is appropriate, your comms is going to fall flat. Keep a close eye on what your customers are doing, thinking and feeling.\r\n \tMake sure your messaging is right. Review content that focuses on commercial selling and replace with a focus on innovation and support that you can give to customers right now. Address the key concerns that your customers might have with support and guidance that adds real value.\u00a0\r\n \tShare your expertise. Think about the experts you have within your business and how they could be sharing their knowledge and insight via podcasts, videos and webinars. Pet owners want to do the best by their pet so leverage your expertise to build trust and brand equity.\u00a0\r\n \tListen to the data. Monitoring your website\u2019s analytics plus active social listening can give you unique insights into how your customers are actively engaging with your brand. Make sure you\u2019re reviewing this and using the insights to tweak and optimise approaches.\r\n \tBuild your network. This could be a good time to build your contacts and increase your social following. Social has a significant role to play in helping you stay relevant and present but be careful on what you post. Remember the 3Hs \u2013 be helpful, be human and be humble.\r\n\r\nAlthough the impact of COVID-19 has left many businesses nervous about what the future holds and how quickly recovery will happen, navigating and responding to the changes in consumer behaviour in a sensitive and appropriate manner could give business the post-pandemic boost it needs.\r\n\r\nThe relationship with pets is stronger than ever and with a new \u2018homebody economy\u2019 emerging in which consumers aren\u2019t ready for regular out-of-home activities, pet brands that provide an excellent digital experience that adds value, builds trust and engages pet owners, will find a new loyal audience base is ready and waiting.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nAn experience PR professional, Laura Murphy is an associate director for PR comms agency, SpeedCommunications.