Last year during the height of the COVID pandemic, people across the country adopted pets at a rate not seen for years. Stuck at home and longing for companionship (or a new project) they emptied shelters, pet stores, and breeders’ kennels, bringing home dogs, cats, and other household companions by the thousands.
In Phoenix, Arizona, Kay Eskridge, M.Photog.Cr., CPP, noticed the trend and started to think about how she could pivot a part of her business to address the expanding pet population. An animal lover with two adopted rescue dogs, Eskridge had been working with pets for years through charitable efforts. Now, she thought, with a burgeoning target market opening up in front of her, she could use a subset of her business to launch a new product line. With in-person events on pause during the pandemic, she wanted to diversify her offerings with multiple and distinct lines of business. She came up with ReBARKable Pet Portraits, a division of her studio dedicated to pet photography with products, packages, and promotions designed specifically for pet owners.
“The idea was to create something new that I could make money doing but that would also make me happy,” says Eskridge. “Photographing pets has brought a breath of fresh air. It’s such a beautiful distraction from everything else life throws at you.”
Aside from developing another profitable division of her business, Eskridge wanted to create a new, branded product line. She took a hard look at the photographic products she’d offered to portrait clients in the past, like wall art and albums, as well as other photo merchandise that doesn’t work for humans but could be applied to pet photography—face masks, bags, and T-shirts. She also looked for diverse ways to use photographic products. For example, she sells image boxes to clients who have an older pet, and when that pet passes away, its collar or other keepsakes can be kept in the box. She also sells pet dress-up portraits and other unique items, like dry erase boards, which are metal prints mounted on a foam backing with her studio logo emblazoned on the front.
Something she’s found useful in differentiating her pet brand from her portrait work is offering a variety of package options. And because the retouching for pet portraits is typically less labor-intensive than for people portraits, Eskridge can bundle several fun options into those packages for pet-loving clients.
The simplicity of ReBARKable Pet Portraits is that Eskridge has essentially taken programs she’s done for people and adapted them for pets. Everything has a pet-themed name (Pick of the Litter, Off the Leash, Specially Fur You) with branding that is distinct from her typical human offerings. There’s a puppy portrait program that mirrors a baby’s first year program. There are three session levels and a membership program called the Bow Wow VIP (Very Important Pet) Club. She holds picture days at dog day cares that are just like school picture days. She has a calendar club with monthly themed photo sessions. She even has pooch pampering experiences and end-of-life “compassion portraits.”
To get started, Eskridge reached out to longtime friends with pets and asked if their furry companions could be models for some portfolio-building shoots. She also did a pet model search on Facebook and called her existing client base to recruit animals for sample images. In short order, she created a pet portrait portfolio and mocked up a variety of products with irresistible animal images for an online catalog.
Eskridge had been involved in the pet community for years through Paws for a Cause, a charitable campaign she launched to bring awareness and raise resources for a local animal rescue. Once a quarter for more than 10 years she’s set aside two days to provide free pet portraits in exchange for donations of food, toys, blankets, and treats. When she launched ReBARKable Pet Portraits, she reconnected with many of the donors. She also expanded the program in concert with a local high-end car dealership to offer their customers free pet portraits in exchange for donations. The venture connects her with an affluent demographic near the dealership’s showroom, helps expand her charitable efforts, and builds the buzz about her pet portraits. “Plus, these are the kinds of events that can attract media attention and get lots of love on social media,” says Eskridge.
Eskridge extended her marketing outreach to popular pet hangouts, like dog parks and farmers markets. She came up with a “You’ve Been Spotted” program, where she’d hand out cards offering a free pet portrait session to pet owners at these venues.
Vendor partnerships have been Eskridge’s most effective marketing method. She partners with a variety of like-minded businesses to copromote. For example, she teams up with a dog day care and spa that’s close to her studio. It’s an expensive pet pampering experience, and the humans who foot the bill fit exactly into her target market. She collaborates with rescue communities, breeders, groomers, and other pet service providers.
“It’s really as simple as finding vendors who support your brand and then connecting with them,” she says. “This idea holds true for small towns or big cities. It’s all about finding your target market and connecting to it.”
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large.