PetCulture's first CMO shares her ambitions for achieving growth

A week into joining the subscriber-based retail startup as its first chief marketing officer, Melanie Novacan talks about the opportunitty for the brand

Melanie Novacan
Melanie Novacan

A petition encouraging Australian employers to grant pet owners ‘PETernity’ leave, along with pet personality scores driving product recommendations and membership benefits, are just some of the tools PetCulture’s first CMO is using to drive aggressive growth.

Melanie Novacan joined PetCulture its first chief marketing officer last week. The pure-play online business is a joint venture between Woolworths and Holland Insurance, owner of PetSure, and a direct response to growing levels of pet ownership and spend across the country. Forecasts suggest expenditure on pets will top $10 billion in Australia in coming years.

One of PetCulture’s biggest points of distinction is a tiered subscription-based offering providing a combination of member benefits across pet insurance, products and services, such as 24/7 vet chat support, discounts, free delivery and multiple pets coverage.

It’s the first time Novacan has tackled a marketing role in the ecommerce space, and she told CMO she was excited by the opportunity and challenge. Novacan has a broad breadth of marketing and brand management experience, stretching from well-known businesses such as Telstra, ING Australia and CommSec, through to media streaming disruptor, Stan, and startups, Stockspot and AgriWebb.

“This business is being launched to be a disruptive brand in a cluttered market. And it’s one that is ripe and ready for a brand to come in and think about the health and wellbeing of pets as part of your family,” she said. 

PetCulture was founded by Iain McDonald, who has been a co-founder or sole founder on a number of startups including Laava, antimatter and Razorfish. Its product offering and platform was initially set up by an incubation team. Work on brand strategy and creative also kicked off prior to Novacan’s appointment, overseen by consulting marketer, Lauren Chapman. Others involved in getting PetCulture up and running include former Accenture Interactive chief, Michael Buckley.

Credit: PETculture


Since January, the business has been building out its permanent executive leadership team and now has six leaders installed including CEO, Simon Smith, whose resume includes leadership positions with Ola, eBay and Servcorp. Appointing a CMO was the “last piece of the puzzle”, Novacan said.

“Stepping back into a true brand CMO role in a leadership team where there is that vision of where we will take the business next… made the role compelling for me,” she said. “There’s very high calibre talent on this leadership team underpinned by Simon’s expertise and business acumen. I’m excited to be learning from and growing with these individuals.”  

The experience of building the Stan brand as a new market entrant in a new category, along with activating massive numbers of subscribers, will be instrumental in how Novacan tackles the latest post. While pet retail isn’t a new category, the idea of subscription-based membership is novel.

She noted the top three things PetCulture’s CEO was looking for in a CMO was proven ability to build a brand from zero in a short space of time; a track record in accelerating growth in a competitive market; and digital marketing expertise.

“I’ll be able to leverage all of those learnings, experience and knowledge, but with the challenge of getting my head around ecommerce and retail, and learning that side of the category,” she said.  

Fast-track to growth

Over the next six months, PetCulture’s priority is to rapidly build brand recognition with pet owners in Australia. Novacan pointed out there are 29 million pets in Australia, more than the total human population. And numbers have flourished during the pandemic.

“Our brand’s mission is to make Australia a happier place by nurturing a great pet community and enabling members to improve the lives of their pets,” she said. “The next six months is about trying to crack that market and drive brand recognition, consideration and trial, getting people to come and experience the product and service we are offering. We have some aggressive targets to hit.”

It’s no mean ask, with the category stretching from competitors such as pure-play online provider, PetCircle, through to more traditional bricks-and-mortar brands such as PetBarn.

Through her work at Stan, Novacan said she knows the key is finding the right combination of brand and performance marketing. Novacan is now working with media agency Performix, on establishing a test-and-learn calendar to ensure the business identifies an optimum media mix.

She didn’t see a huge amount of traditional above-the-line work on the cards. Instead, there will be an emphasis across digital and social channels supported by “some clever creative media activations and stunts”.  

One of these activations is a ‘pet-tition’ launched last week to encourage businesses to offer ‘PETernity’ leave and enable employees to have their pets recognised as members of their family. PetCulture has already adopted these practices internally and offers staff two days of leave when they acquire a new pet.

“We know so many households have pets and view them as part of the family,” Novacan said. “We did a big piece of research with TBWA, which highlighted 68 per cent of Australians that own pets see them as a true member of their family.”

As part of the campaign, PetCulture’s CEO has appeared with various media outlets including TV breakfast program, Sunrise.

Novacan said the brand’s humorous, quirky and fun identity also offers the tools to appeal to the fun aspects and benefits of having pets in the family.  

Meanwhile, given the broad number of Australians who own pets, Novacan said personalisation will come through putting the pet first. PetCulture is actively encouraging subscribers as they join up to compile a profile of their pet such as name, age, breed type and weight.

“This will allow us to provide some of those more personalised recommendations for products right for your particular pet. It’ll also mean that if members do need access to our 24/7 vet chat online, that there’s information for the vet to be able to help the owner with what their concern, question or challenge is,” Novacan explained.  

“It also enables us to provide recommendations around the level of pet cover and insurance right for each pet, as well as pure product recommendations and what treats might be right for a cat or dog.

“Because so many owners do see their pet has their own personality, or ‘pet-tality’ – that will assist driving the level of engagement with owners very engaged with their pets.”  

Just a week in the role, Novacan said she’s optimistic about the opportunity. She’s actively working with the CEO on the business plan and presenting to the board this week.

Team wise, Novacan is also building out her marketing team from scratch and is actively on the hunt for a range of skillsets.

“The combination of talent of people on the leadership team plus my skills will ensure this is a very successful business for our JV owners and the leadership team,” she added.

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