What do you mean by artificial?

100% Natural LogoDid You Run That Copy By Legal?

I used to verify claims in automotive ads and ran them through a strict legal process. I often look at pet food advertising in disbelief. Flimsy and misleading claims abound in the pet marketing space. Yet, these claims seem to elude the kind of competitor challenges and scrutiny common in automotive.  To be clear, pet food is highly regulated, and there are rules about what needs to be in the package as well as on the package.

Is Newer Really Better?

New dog foods are being launched at a dizzying rate, with a clear relationship to trends in human foodsIt’s not clear that trendy new ingredients and formulations are better for dogs than the older foods that have sustained them for decades.  This is a highly controversial area and I’ve chosen not to cover it in my blog up until now.  Some recent coverage of Petco’s change to their product assortment has inspired this post looking at pet retail advertising claims.

Petco logo backwardsReBranding Big Pet(co) With a Bold Claim

Big Box Pet, i.e. Petco and Petsmart, have been struggling a bit recently. Like many big box retailers, they are fighting the onslaught of online retail on their business.  They are both working on strategies to fight back. Petco, the smaller company, has been making bold moves, including experimental stores, focused on all-inclusive pet in-store services. Petco hired a new CEO in June 2018, who in turn hired a new CMO in September.  In November, the company announced it was dropping all products with artificial colors and flavors.  This move was praised for its boldness, with coverage based on their press release appearing in the business and general press, including Forbes, Fortune, and the Associated Press. 

Does This Claim Pass the Sniff Test?

Recently, a blog post at Pet Food Industry by Ryan Yamka caught my eye. Ryan is highly credentialled in pet nutrition with professional experience in petfood manufacturing. He calls Petco out for not being 100% true to their pledge, using his knowledge of the ingredients on, and missing from their “banned list”.   Some of the dropped foods do not contain artificial ingredients, but they do happen to have lower margins than some of the foods that are retained.  He also notes that there are a few foods with artificial ingredients still to be found on their shelves – in private label foods manufactured exclusively for Petco. Other artificial ingredients that are not on the banned list are included in high-margin treats.   The ingredient analysis is a bit too technical for me to verify, but I trust Ryan’s explanation. As a former pet specialty retail marketer, I absolutely recognize the difference between high and low margin brands and categories and agree with his analysis.

Don’t Trust, Verify!

Ryan’s article is the only one I’ve seen that fact-checked Petco’s announcement.  Press coverage of the Petco “no artificial” announcement took the company at their word. If other retailers mentioned it at all, it was generally seen as positive.  Dog food buyers tend to trust their emotions and believe dog food marketing claims that often contain a fair bit of puffery.  I often see dog food and dog treat brands launched with an origin story that involves one person and one pet’s nutrition challenges. Dog owners need to be skeptical of these brands and more accepting of claims made by companies with years of experience based on feeding trials involving many dogs.

Ask Experts and Read the Fine Print

An experienced marketer’s eye can see when a product is being described in boastful rather than verifiable language. Learning petfood labeling jargon is a nerdy task that involves searching industry association sites for definitions but for me, it’s worth the effort.  If you want to become a nutrition and labeling nerd, great!  If you don’t, talk to breeders, kennel and rescue operators, and veterinarians who have practical experience caring for dogs for food recommendations.  Marketing is all about building desire so the retailer can sell what’s in inventory, if you can’t read between the lines, don’t trust it!

Cleo  Parker

Cleo has been showing Bull Terriers in AKC events and working with dogs and dog clubs since she was a teenager. Her professional career has been spent working in marketing insights and analytics in a variety of industries, including automotive, advertising, and pet specialty retail.

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Can You Really Customize Your Dog’s Food Online?

natural, organic dog's food in a bowl with ingredients zucchini, carrot, eggs and raw meat

There is an interesting subset of dog food customization and delivery that I’m seeing more references to lately.  If you search for “Custom Dog Food”, Google returns over 43 million results.  I have a problem calling it customized dog food, because as far as I can tell, each brand presents a limited number of options, although they do walk prospective customers through a questionnaire to select the best option available for their dog(s).

This trend that builds on several trends in human and canine nutrition.  The popularity of meal kits, like Blue Apron and HelloFresh, the growing humanization of pets, concerns about the quality of pet food ingredients, concerns about individual pet nutrition needs, often related to digestive problems, weight management and allergies, have all converged and led to the launch of quite a number of brands marketing custom dog food options.  Purveyors range from small businesses to multinational pet food manufacturers.  It’s not hard to find articles designed to help people sort through the alternatives, here’s one from Consumer’s Advocate, and another from Reviews.com  but it still could be a daunting task with millions of alternatives!

Marketing for these foods, for the most part, focuses on quality, transparency, and customization.  Dog food is highly regulated because it is designed to serve as a single food source, but the terms used to describe ingredients and package labeling requirements can be confusing at best.   Some sites go to great lengths to explain these terms and how their foods are formulated, others focus on the quality of their ingredients without getting into the weeds of feed terminology and definitions.

The sites that offer custom dry or kibble foods rather than freshly cooked ones tend to make less detailed claims about their ingredients but still emphasize high-quality ingredients and customization as key benefits of their products.

One barrier to buying from these brands is the amount of work needed  to select a vendor and set up a profile, but for people expending a lot of energy dealing with a dog that’s not doing well on its current food, this could be a time saver in the long run if the food results in better health.   In researching this post, I went through a bunch of work on several sites to set up a profile only to discover all the “custom” options included some of my dog’s biggest allergens. Most of the food companies offer free shipping and flexible delivery options, so once those are set up, getting the food is a no-brainer, you just need to pay for it.

Which leads me to what I consider the biggest barrier to adoption of these custom foods in my opinion which is cost.  Doing a quick comparison for Marley, my senior dog with multiple food allergies, prices  ranged from  just under $40 for a 24 days’ supply from Purina’s Just Right kibble blend, which is comparable to the price of the premium kibble I feed my other dogs, to more than 8 times that amount, $334 dollars for the same days’ quantity of food from Fresh Food for Dogs. I’m going to add that I’m not 100% sure either food is completely free of allergens, as each food contains some things that were not included on Marley’s food allergy test.  So  I’ll just continue to make her meals with venison or chicken and green beans plus supplements at home, following the recommendation of Dr. John Smith DVM, our functional medicine vet it’s been working for her and for me, she’s worth the time and trouble.

 

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Marketing Boosts Grain Free Dog Food Sales

Grain free dog foods are the fastest growing segment of the dog food market, up 9% in the past year, while sales of foods with grains are down slightly. Over half of all new dog foods introduced in 2017 were grain free, and companies that stated earlier they would not jump on the grain free trend have joined in, according to an article in the January 2018 edition of Petfood Industry magazine. This is one of the most striking examples of how pet food trends follow human food trends, and a great example of opportunistic product development and marketing driving the trend.

The parallel trend in human food is the growth of gluten free foods, which have seen sales increase steadily over the past several years.  A look at Google searches for gluten-free food and grain-free dog food show the dog food trend is trailing the human trend, but following a similar trajectory.

 

Given the interest in grain free foods, pet food companies are more than willing to fulfill demand by offering more of these premium priced foods. Marketing for these foods emphasizes what is not in the foods rather than what is in the foods and implies that these processed foods are more like what wild canids eat than other processed foods whose carbohydrates are provided by grains rather than starchy vegetables and legumes.

While there is no question that qluten-free foods are essential for the health of humans with celiac disease, they are being sought out and consumed by a much wider group of the U.S. population who believe these products promote health in many ways that have not been scientifically confirmed.  Similarly, grain-free dog foods make sense for dogs  with known allergies to specific grains, they are also being fed to a much wider group of dogs. The veterinary community is not convinced grain-free foods are  more beneficial than other well formulated foods. 

It will be interesting to see how long grain free products continue to show above average growth, as two other human diet trends, paleolithic diets and ancient grains, are starting to emerge in commercial dog food.

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Lose Weight in 2012 with Purina and Jenny Craig

project-pet-slim-down lgogPet Product News reported on  a co-marketing promotion between two of food giant Nestle’s divisions, Jenny Craig weight loss and Purina pet foods work together to promote weight loss for both pet owners and their pets.   Project Pet Slim down is  marketed  through veterinarians as a New Years resolution for the pet and is not mentioned on either the  Jenny Craig or Purina  web sites.  The Project Pet Slim down site has information on assessing your pet’s condition, tips for getting your pet more active, pet weight loss reality show videos  and reference to weight loss pet foods available by prescription from Purina.  The Jenny Craig part of the program is optional for pet owners and offers a 30-day trial to the program (food sold separately.)

The New Year’s resolution tie in is a twist I haven’t seen in marketing diet pet foods before, and another validation of  the pet humanization trend. While I doubt many pets are looking to make changes for the New Year, obesity in American pets is a growing problem, just as it is in their owners. I applaud Purina for making the effort to promote better health in both pets and their owners.

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Blame Dog Owners, not Marketing for Overweight Dog Epidemic

48 Pound Norwich Terrier
APOP Photo of Obese Dog

Petfood Industry reported on the pet obesity epidemic, which mirrors that found in the human population.   Research conducted by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention finds that about half of all pets are overweight and roughly 20% of those are obese.  The APOP has conducted annual pet weight surveys since 2007 and has found an upward trend  in the proportion of overweight pets that are obese.    It appears that the culprit is not the shift to more premium brands of dog foods (low-calorie dog food sales are up) but that the dogs, like people, are snacking more often and eating more high-calorie snacks than in the past. Dog treats are one of the fastest growing pet food categories and like human foods, often very calorie dense.  Owners admit to indulging their pets with treats, and use of this “affordable luxury” may be spurred by the challenging economy.

The solution, just as for human weight loss, is more attention to a balanced diet, which for dogs is easily achieved by feeding a high quality balanced dog food, avoiding snacks, and regular aerobic exercise – which can aid in keeping their owners at a healthier weight as well.

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PetsMart and GNC create line of pet supplements

PetsMart and GNC recently announced a partnership to create a line of pet supplements available exclusively through PetsMart retailers and website.  The supplement line launches in fall, 2010 according to an article on financial news site CDTV.

This is interesting development marks the convergence of several trends.  Vitamin and supplement usage is increasing for humans,  pet care is becoming more humanized, and people are becoming more interested in premium nutrition for their pets.  This is a great opportunity for both partners; joining two strong brands in an area where there are few well-known competitors.

My concern is that pets may end up being over-supplemented as many of them already eat a nutrionally balanced commercial diet.  If the worst that happens is that some dogs produce expensive urine when they excrete excess vitamins, that’s not a terrible thing.   But dogs as well as people are harmed by overuse of some supplements. Owners should make sure their veterinarians  are aware of the supplements as well as the food that their animals consume.

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Proctor and Gamble Purchases Natura Pet Products

Proctor and Gamble recently announced that they had purchased holistic pet food manufacturer Natura Pet Products which describes its products as “The Healthiest Pet Food in the World.”   This action gives P&G entry into the fastest growing segment of the pet food industry with a portfolio of well-respected, selectively distributed brands in that space.   These brands join P&G’s mass market Iams and premium Eukanuba brands and allows the company to leverage Natura’s credibility in holistic and natural pet foods.  Eukanuba has dabbled in this sector with its Naturally Wild products, but the brand does not have strong credibility in this market space.

Natura now sells six brands of pet food and treats. Their EVO brand was one of the first to offer grain-free pet food; other brands focus on simple, organic, and premium quality ingredients.  One thing I appreciate about Natura is a fearless approach to their competition as they offer an online comparison tool where consumers can match their products with competitive pet foods; including other premium and holistic foods.

Some in the “good food” movement for pets seem nervous about one of the world’s biggest consumer packaged good firms acquiring Natura. I see it as a savvy business move by P&G and I suspect they fully  realize the power of these vigilant consumers  both to build and destroy brand equity.  It will be interesting to see how branding, distribution and promotion develop after this ownership change, which is still undergoing regulatory review.

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Iams ProActive dog food with prebiotics

Iams ProActive dog food
Iams ProActive dog food

Brandweek featured an article discussing Iam’s integrated campaign for its ProActive pet foods containing prebiotics.  The food has specific ingredients that stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, and should be distinguished from probiotic compounds like yogurt which contain beneficial bacteria, which would not live through the processing required to manufacture dry dog food.

Iams enlisted two spokes animals, one canine, one feline to promote their prebiotic foods. The dog, a Bulldog named Munch, has a Facebook page which has attracted over 1200 fans. All of the ProActive health products carry a distinctive swirled symbol on the packaging, which is carried over into point of purchase and print displays.  ProActive’s marketing uses he theme line  “I am beautiful inside” which was used across online, point of purchase, and television advertising.

These products show the increasing interest in nutraceuticals in human nutrition, which has spilled over into the nutritional interests for our pets.  I found the Iams website very carefully worded in its description of the benefits of  these products, avoiding any outright health claims.

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HSUS launches Humane Choice dog food

Humane Choice Dog FoodThe Humane Society of the United States has entered the pet food  business with the launch of Humane Choice, a vegetarian dog food made from United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic-certified ingredients. Manufactured in Uruguay,  this product is  sold through select PETCO and Whole Foods stores.  A kibble which meets the American Association of Feed Control Officers (AAFCO) standards for adult maintenance is the only product available. Humane Choice’s marketing arm is the G&B Marketing company, which sends 6% of the wholesale price of each bag to the HSUS.

While I can only speculate about the motives behind the launch of this product, it seems more about providing a feeding option for people sympathetic toward the HSUS’s stand against domestic animals than the nutritional needs of dogs.   The group actively opposes farming of animals and the feedstuffs fed to meat animals; they feel animals are equal in status to humans and should not be owned or consumed.  HSUS opposes breeding and working with dogs,  which may be the reason no growth or performance formulas are offered,  I suspect it’s also hard to meet those standards without using animal protein.

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Low calorie dog food study reveals problems

Overweight Dog A veterinary study reported on dogchannel.com found that dog foods labelled low-calorie had inconsistent labeling and feeding recommendations.  Content analysis showed that the food in the container  did not always match package claims.

Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University did an analysis of  44 different dog foods with labels indicating they would support canine weight loss. Such foods are required by federal law to show calorie counts, but unfortunately not only were these numbers  inaccurate,  the recommended feeding amounts would result in weight gain.

Dog obesity is a significant problem with nearly half of all dogs classified as overweight and nearly 10% obese in a 2008 study. Just as in humans, excess weight contributes to increased health problems, veterinary expenses, and decreased length and quality of life.  A recent study also found a correlation between overweight owners and over weight dogs.

Owners who want their dogs to lose weight need to think of the fundamentals – diet and exercise.  Unfortunately, dog food manufacturers are not always a reliable source of  weight loss advice.

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