What does it mean to be a cat person in 2019? This is the question that’s being asked at Smalls, a New York-based startup and portfolio company of R/GA Ventures’ Leap Venture Studio, making human-grade food for cats and challenging how people think about cat health through the functional benefits of their recipes, products, and services.
While there are over 74 million cats in over 30% of American homes, there is still a hesitant, stereotypical notion around what it means to be a cat owner. This is where Smalls saw a business opportunity. They wanted to build a product that resonated with this community, without pigeon-holing them into an existing, outdated mold, but by recognizing and celebrating the diversity of what it means to be a cat parent.
In the same way Rapha built a lucrative, global lifestyle brand around a misunderstood but passionate cycling community, or how Glossier built a cult makeup brand with natural beauty at the center, Smalls is challenging the reputation of cat owners by consciously understanding cats and the people who love them. And for Smalls, that means truly embracing the uniqueness of needs by elevating the end-to-end customer relationship through its first-rate design.
We sat down with Miles Barretto, Head of Design at Smalls, to talk about appealing to their millennial consumer through his approach to visual design for Smalls, from cat creative to feline fonts… and whole kitten kaboodle.
Let’s start with the Smalls customer. How have they influenced your approach to the Smalls visual brand?
MB: Unlike many direct to customer startups in the ecosystem today, Smalls’ customers come from a diverse mix of locations, demographics, income, and politics. We see this as an incredibly powerful truth about cats: they are genuine connectors in culture, not just for their silly memes, but for the way people love them.
To date, cat food brands have paid little attention to what truly makes cats cats. At Smalls, we really wanted to be the first to pioneer this, and in order to do it, we really had to hone in on what cats are; we see them as independent, self-actualized, fearless beings. If you walk through any pet food aisle, and you’ll see that most brands don’t strive for that level of understanding the way we hope to.
When we thought about our approach to visual design, we knew we had to make a product that got people talking about cat health, one that we could get on counters, shared in feeds, and proudly represented in and outside of the community of cat owners. We wanted to be sure that when a customer sees a box of Smalls, they know it’s made for them and their cat, not just a dry, generic, boardroom-approved stereotype pet food.
Since I’m an obsessive cat person myself, I was able to marry my lens for design with my passionate understanding of this animal and bring in a strong point of view to incorporate the most uniquely “cat” into the work. This means building an identity that is fun, flexible, curious, smart, silly, and surprising — sort of predictably unpredictable.
How is designing for a cat startup brand different than any other startup in the pet space?
MB: I think it’s safe to say that most startups — most companies — behave like dogs. They’re super friendly, extroverted, social, aim to please and validate their humans, and will jump through hoops to make them happy. At Smalls, we’ve always had the philosophy that if this brand is meant to target cat people, who, of course, like cats, then we should act like cats — not dogs.
We’re concise, clear, quick, and precise, but we also forge real, honest bonds with cat owners by showing our silly, goofy, irreverent side (and also maybe pretending we don’t know if you see it). I also daresay that cat people tend to have an appreciation for the finer things. We’re more geared toward things like sharp design (I might be biased), and so we place utmost importance on the visual sophistication of the brand.
How does that “visual sophistication” manifest in the brand?
MB: We really try to elevate from what’s expected. Our packaging isn’t what people are used to seeing on shelves: it’s crisp, appealing, and dynamic. You can also see this reflected in our photography, we might show something different than what one might envision when they picture cats, cat people, homes of cat people. I art direct our shoots as I would for any objet d’art, casting diversely and authentically, using sophisticated lighting you might see in more editorial-style work, implying whole cat-worlds within our sets, and presenting our food as though it’s got a Michelin Star.
This vision is also reflected in the packaging of Smalls products, like our newly released freeze-dry bags, demonstrating a balance of playfulness and clarity. We strategically chose strong, bold words and phrases intertwined in a scene of cats pushing the letters of “Food for Cats” around to be eye-catching, but informative.
Nearly every type of cat food packaging I’ve seen has busy, confusing copy alongside a loud, distracting design. The consumer doesn’t necessarily know if what they’re buying is the right, healthy choice for their cat. I wanted to convey Smalls as the cool, innovative and straightforward product that it is while also maintaining a very tight, clear lockup of nutritional facts cat owners care about.
Smalls is undeniably a colorful brand. How did you decide what was the right color palette?
MB: We applied “cat-like” thinking for color, too. Our color themes balance soft and strong colors to create a good push and pull of tonality within the brand. Cats are contradictory this way, too. We’ve also broken away from having a singular brand color and instead creating a universe that comfortably suits a variety of colors, leaving things more open-ended for future product lines, brand extensions, and the like.
Where is an unexpected place in the Smalls brand we might find more of this ‘cat-ness?’
MB: We collaborated with Good Type Foundry to create a custom typeface inspired by the feline form — particularly the cattail. I don’t think you’d know right away, looking at it, but there’s something strangely cat-like about it, and it’s these tails. Cats use their tails to communicate and so we created a typeface to match that behavior, and appropriately, to communicate.
Below, you can see when a cat is “interested” a slight hook is formed at the tip of their tail. If we look at the character “U” and “E” you can see similar hooked tips that break out of the ascender and descender of the characters.
When a cat is pleased the tail quivers. You can see in “M” and “O” you have a similar state of playfulness.
We’re launching the tail-typeset on the Smalls blog, and — so excited about this — in our soon-to-be released print magazine, “Small Talk.” It’ll be a really fun, non-product-related creative outlet for us to stretch our cat-backs and get really experimental.
We’re excited to see what the Smalls team comes up with next for our regal roommates. Check out more of Miles Barretto’s work at smallsforsmalls.com and @smallsforcats.
Smalls is a portfolio company of the Leap Venture Studio with R/GA Ventures. Learn more about Leap at www.leapventurestudio.com.
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