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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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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