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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Hopping on The Canine DNA Test Bandwagon

wisdom panel logoI tested my dog Iris using the Wisdom 4.0 DNA test, which is marketed to people who are curious about what breeds make up their dog’s heritage. I was not surprised to find out that she was 100% Bull Terrier, and I was pleased that she wasn’t carrying genes for either of the two genetic diseases included in the test, but this was also no surprise as neither is a known issue in her breed.  The only breed-specific disease in Bull Terriers with a DNA test is Lethal Acrodermatitis, which has a single-gene test available through PennGen at the University of Pennsylvania.  Using the Wisdom Panel piqued my interest in the in-home tests and the reasons they are growing in popularity.

I tested Iris at the request of Dayna Dreger, who is a canine research scientist at Purdue University. I met Dayna early in 2018 at a dog show in Indianapolis where she was collecting DNA for a project involving canine feet.  She’s currently working on a dog color genetics project. Iris is black brindle but is starting to get more and more brown mixed in areas that used to be pure black, and Dayna noticed a photo of her on Facebook and wanted to include her DNA in  her project.   Check out a report on Dayna’s work identifying the relationships between dog breeds around the world, including some cool visualizations.

Popularity of In-Home DNA Testing is on the Rise

People are buying more DNA tests for their dogs, once again following a human trend to find ancestry and relatives through in-home DNA tests as shown in these charts based on Google Trends search data. Both types of tests see searches spike in November, suggesting they are being purchased as gifts.  (NOTE: The spike in general DNA test search in April 2018 may be related to DNA Day on 4/25/18 – the canine DNA test companies seem to have missed this marketing opportunity!)

 

Health Reasons to Test Canine DNA

Dog breeders should do relevant DNA testing, for heritable diseases to avoid matings that could produce affected puppies. Purebred dog owners can find out if theirs dogs are at risk for an adult-onset disease.   Many of the breed-specific tests are offered individually through universities, like the LAD test for Bull Terriers and Miniature Bull Terriers, but some also come bundled in DNA panel tests like the more expensive Wisdom Panel Health Test.  The number of tests and laboratories offering these tests is exploding, and canine health advocates are trying to help people find and select tests by creating a harmonized database of available tests.   Dog owners should careful when interpreting DNA-linked disease gene findings in breeds or mixes which are not the same breeds studied to initially identify the disease-linked genes.  Similar diseases in different breeds can have different genetic profiles, and misinterpreting a DNA report can have disastrous consequences for individual dogs.

Testing to Determine Parentage

Purebred dog owners can also test DNA to determine parentage.  The American Kennel Club requires that sires whose semen is collected and shipped for fresh chilled or frozen breedings be DNA tested so if there is any question, parentage can be confirmed. DNA profiles also come in to play for litters with multiple sires or in cases where purebred puppies’ parentage is disputed or unknown.  Yes,  there are scenarios in the purebred dog world that would be right at home on  Jerry Springer!  The AKC tests are used to determine parentage, or specifically to rule parents in or out, not to identify the breed of the dog in question.  The AKC tests are most akin to DNA tests conducted on crime scene artifacts and for paternity tests to identify parentage with confidence. AKC does some direct marketing of these tests to new AKC titlists who can receive a colorful certificate displaying their dog’s DNA profile.

Should You DNA Test Your Dog?

People who are curious about the breeds in your dog’s family tree have a number of commercial DNA test options, but results will not necessarily be identical across all the DNA tests out there. The number and breeds of dogs used to establish the profiles are not identical across all the tests, so results should be considered directional rather than definitive.  The Wisdom Panel has a fun quiz that illustrates how difficult it can be to guess which breeds are behind a given dog based on appearance.

DNA testing for dogs can be used to improve dog health, inform breeding decisions,  identify parentage or likely breed makeup for a specific dog.  Caution needs to be used using DNA to learn about dogs’ genetic risks; within a breed, consulting with your breed parent club can help you understand which tests are relevant and how to interpret results.  If you have a mixed breed dog, more caution is needed before interpreting disease gene data, as what is known within a single breed may not apply to other breeds or combinations of breeds.

 

Black Brindle Bull Terrier
Iris – GCH Ch Nuance Night in Tunisia, ROM, CGC, TKN

DNA Test result graph 100% Bull Terrier

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Great Source for Dog Marketing Intelligence

Pet Business Professor logo

Barriers to entry are low in many sectors of the dog-related industry.  Which means that there are many small businesses marketing products and services for dogs and other pets.  Many dog product entrepreneurs are fueled by their passion to solve a problem they experienced with their own pets which inspired them to launch their business.   They start with an idea, develop a product or service and then start selling with limited resources for marketing support, let alone market research and analysis.

Enter John Gibbons, the Pet Business Professor.  John maintains a website where he publishes detailed analyses of public data about pet spending, discusses industry trends, and offers guidance on how to get the most out of pet industry trade shows.   This information can help pet businesses of all sizes, but I think should be of particular interest to small companies without the resources to dig into all this data themselves.   I suspect even many mid-size to large businesses are not doing this type of in-depth analysis of data that is publicly available, but not user-friendly in its original form.

You can subscribe to The Pet Business Professor blog via email to get updates when a new article is published.  The industry deep dives don’t come out very often, but they contain a treasure trove of information.  In the weeks leading up to major industry trade shows, like Global Pet Expo and SuperZoo, the Pet Professor will publish maps and attendance strategy guides to help you map out a plan of attack to get the most out of these vast displays from pet product purveyors.

I recommend that everyone in the dog marketing space visit The Pet Business Professor website, you’re certain to learn something of value.

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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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Bingo Pet Salon Offers Upscale Pet Services

Bingo Pet Salon StorefrontSoutheast Michigan’s local MetroMode media outlet reported on Bingo Pet Salon an upscale pet business opening in Royal Oak, one of the hippest inner ring Detroit suburbs. Bingo Pet Salon offers a contemporary look and feel and in addition to dog and cat grooming services, offers pet sitting and locally made specialty pet products, including personalized collars.  Located near the heart of the walkable downtown Royal Oak shopping district, the salon offers pet owners the opportunity to drop off their pets for grooming, take their time shopping and dining and then pick up their pet on the way home.  The business offers a free photo share for pet-sitting clients who become fans of the salon on Facebook.

This savvy business is taking advantage of a great location to position the typical time required to groom a pet as a benefit to their busy owners. Their pet sitting services include free email or text updates to out-of-town owners, with an upgrade available to include photo messaging about the pet.  The merchandise offered aligns with the trend to “buy local” and offers unique items which are in keeping with the boutique nature of human clothing and accessories sold in the Royal Oak shopping area.  The hours of operation are  targeted   to working pet owners, open every day except Monday until at least 6 PM and until 7PM on Friday and Saturday.

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Christmas Gifts for Dogs

Dog carrying her wrapped Christmas giftIt looks like good news for pet retailers this holiday season. An annual AP-Petside poll conducted by GfK found that pet owners are planning on spending more on their pets’ Christmas gifts in 2011 than in 2010.  About half (51%) of pet owners plan to buy their pets a Christmas gift, a percentage which has held steady for the past 3 years.   The average expenditure planned is $46, up from $41 last year, with as you might expect,  more affluent households planning to spend more.

Toys are the most popular Christmas present for dogs, followed by food or treats.  Bedding, clothes and grooming supplies round out the top five gift categories for dogs, although one might wonder if those last two are gifts dogs would choose for themselves!

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Arf Van Furniture for Dogs by Art Van

Arf Van LogoHome Furnishings Business reports on the launch of Arf Van home furnishings for dogs from Art Van Furniture.   This is the first human furniture player I’ve seen enter this area; the products range from modestly priced dog beds which are similar to those sold in pet stores to hard goods which resemble traditional furniture.   Prices seem in line with Art Van’s moderately priced home furnishings for people.

With dogs considered an integral member of many families, there is definitely a market for dog furnishings  designed to blend in with the overall home decor.  Art Van’s entry into this market is reminds me of Bed Head’s introduction of the Pet Head line of hair and skin care products for pets. The furniture is currently on display in select Art Van stores, but must be ordered either in-store or online. Arf Van items can be shipped to any Art Van retail store at no charge.

 

 

 

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Dogdration dog sports beverage

dogdration logoPetfood Industry reported on another entrant in the dog beverage category. Dogdration is the brainchild of  Colorado State University student Brian Fate who felt his dog needed to replace electrolytes after vigorous exercise.  The Rocky Mountain Collegian recently featured  a story on Brian and his company. The product is available online and in a limited number of retail locations. At nearly $4 for a 20 oz bottle and $36 for a case of 12 this is clearly a premium product (I’d bet my dogs would drink Gatorade for a lot less!) Marketing efforts are well steeped in social media; Dogdration has Facebook , YouTube and Twitter accounts and Brian Fate’s Linkedin and MySpace profiles mention he is founder of the company.  Dogdration has even hired professional blog writers to help with marketing efforts.

I’m not certain that dogs need beverages more complicated than water, but this product appears better researched than most. Brian’s passion for exercise and concern for his dog is reflected in Dogdration, while some of the other entrants seem purely opportunistic. I will continue to watch this emerging product category with interest.

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