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.

 

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.

PetCoach Comprehensive In-Store Dog Support System

My husband and I are fans of Shark Tank, and we happened to watch a vintage episode from November 2016 where Pupbox was pitched,  The company was offering a subscription box to puppy owners which followed the puppies with age-appropriate offerings through adulthood, when they switched to an adult dog version of the box.  The segment ends happily as Shark Robert Herjavec makes an offer that the owners accept.

As the owners mentioned the struggles that inspired the business, which involved figuring out what they should be buying for their own pet, it struck me that had they only purchased their dog from a responsible, AKC Breeder of Merit type of breeder, they would not have had so much trouble, as a dedicated dog breeder will follow and support their puppy buyers throughout the puppies’ lifetime and often beyond.

But Pupbox, and in turn, Petco realized that not every dog or puppy buyer is so lucky. People acquire dogs many ways including, from friends and family who no longer want the dog, from rescues and shelters that don’t have the staff to engage in long-term follow-up, as strays that wander into their lives, and from breeders whose motivation to engage with puppy buyers ends at the point of sale. Petco acquired Pupbox in November 2017,  about 5 months after they acquired Petcoach, an online consulting service which also provides the same type of support that comes with a responsibly bred puppy.

In July 2018, Petco announced a retail experiment, turning PetCoach into a retail store in San Marcos, California.  The concept provides a select group of high-quality products and services inside a PetCoach store. Products include high quality, curated food selection, including custom formulations from Petco’s partner Just Food For Dogs and also offers comprehensive online record keeping for dog services available in-store.

In today’s world where specialty retail is under attack from both online vendors and the expanding pet product set in mass retailers, this provides a service level that will be very hard to match.  The question is whether this concept will generate sufficient loyalty and in turn profit, to survive.

 

Furniture Grade Dog Crates are going strong

wooden townhaus dog crate
TownHaus by DenHaus

More than ten years since I first noticed the brand, I’m pleased to see that the furniture grade dog crates by DenHaus are still available.  The only one that looks large enough for a Bull Terrier is the TownHaus which is a rather traditional styled wood piece in a rectangular shape. At close to $400 it’s a lot more than a VariKennel, but it looks very nice and comes in a variety of colors. I really prefer the sleek look of the oval ZenHaus and round BowHaus but given the number of dogs and crates I already have I don’t think any of the Hauses are in my future soon!   This might be a good item for dog show vending at large shows – where they can reach people with passion for dogs and money to spend on high end dog crates.  I have a couple of friends that have put their wood or metal working talents to use making some really cool dog crates so it’s good to see someone make a commercial product from that idea.

In the ensuing years, as dogs are more and more perceived as and treated like family, the availability of furniture-like dog crates has increased dramatically. I think it’s telling that the TownHaus referenced above has decreased in price since I first noticed it in 2009.   A Google search for furniture grade dog crates yields over 2 million results, with the DenHaus products in the middle of page 1 results. Ads served alongside the search show that mass market and online retailers are also getting in the act with wood and wood-like dog crate options.

While DenHaus survives, the website where I first noticed it, Main Street Dog has evolved into a hodgepodge of dog product promotions and dog advice articles.  The site sells advertising and I’m getting the feeling it’s been watching me, I saw several ads for products I researched while writing this post.

Marketing In the Gray Zone with Canine Cannabanoids

cannabis plant leavesProducts including hemp for dogs as well as humans are being introduced and promoted at a breakneck pace.   The editor of Petfood Industry weighed in on this topic in the July 2018 issue.  One of the most interesting things about this trend from a marketing standpoint is the legal standing not only of these products but also of the terms used to describe them. The products go by a variety of names, including CBD (cannabidiol) and PCR (Phyto-Cannabinoid Rich) or just simply hemp oil.  While marketing emphasizes that these products do not contain the psycho-active THC chemical, images of cannabis leaves are freely used in promoting the products, acknowledging the heritage the product shares with THC-rich marijuana.

The legality of the product itself is a subject of debate, with the product providers claiming any product free of THC is legal, while the U.S. government says they most decidedly are not.  Veterinary Practice News discussed some of the pros and cons of providing hemp oil options to patients in a July 2018 article. That said, what is most commonly referred to as CBD oils are being sold for both human and animal use with many retailers deciding to take the risk, and the first product containing CBD oil was recently approved as a human anti-seizure drug by the FDA.

In addition to the challenges of promoting a product which fits into a niche category that’s in a legal gray area, there are likely issues coming with the naming of these products as the manufacturer of the first FDA approved drug has applied to trademark the term “CBD”  and is expected to actively protect that trademark. Bark Avenue blogged about the challenges of marketing their CBD-labelled dog treats. 

I will watch with great interest as the questions of legality, nomenclature, and efficacy are explored, as more manufacturers and retailers decide to jump on the trend.  Stay tuned for updates to this post.

 

Promoting Michigan Dog Events, Products, and Services

The Michigan Canine Resource Guide is a unique publication targeted to dog owners in Michigan.   Beth Mitchell launched this guide to dog-related events, products, and services in Michigan in 2015 and it has steadily grown as more organizations and advertisers contribute.

Beth was inspired by the Arizona Equine Resource Guide,  published by her sister who is active in equine events in that state.  Beth didn’t have a horse, but she does have a dog, and she had spent a lot of time and energy finding the best resources to train her dog and resolve some behavior issues.  She thought there had to be other people looking for a central repository of information on dog events and dog-related services, so the Michigan Canine Resource Guide was born.

Beth started gathering content for the publication in 2014, creating a dog-themed cover and using her sister’s equine guide as an example of the type of content (with horses) that would be featured.  She had booths at dog shows and dog expos around the state and asked people she met at those events how they publicized their events, then explained how the Guide could expand their audience.  She also asked for referrals to other types of events and host organizations she should include.  She solicited ads from other event vendors and asked for referrals to canine professionals, retailers, and manufacturers to find other potential advertisers.  Many lunch hours on her day job included ad sales calls!  Event-giving clubs and organizations are encouraged to contribute dog events for the calendar to help make the publication as complete as possible; there is no charge for the listing.  Advertisers not only appear in the publication, their events are promoted through weekly emails, they are listed in an online directory, and they contribute articles and blog posts that appear in the publication, on the website, or both. Beth retains a creative director who produces ads and other content as needed and has several part-time ad salespeople recruited from the dog community.

The publication is still promoted through booths at select dog events, and every year Beth attends new events to reach a wider audience.  The guides are distributed free at dog events, participating businesses, and pet specialty retailers.  The guide can be viewed interactively online or downloaded in pdf format from the Michigan Canine Resource Guide website.   In addition to the guide itself, the Michigan Canine Resource Guide has an online calendar of events on their website, a directory listing for all advertisers,  and blog posts on a variety of canine topics.  The Guide also has a Facebook page as well as Instagram and Twitter (@MiDogGuide) accounts. It stays in contact with dog enthusiasts through an opt-in weekly newsletter and advertisers also have an option to send sponsored emails to subscribers.  As the publication has grown, Beth has upgraded her marketing tools and currently uses WordPress for the website and MailChimp to manage her email subscription list.

The Michigan Canine Resource Guide has grown steadily in event listings, advertisers, and circulation since its launch.  Beth’s goal is to provide all Michigan dog owners with the resource they need to find local businesses, services, and events that will enable them and their dogs to live a healthy, happy life together. The biggest challenge is getting ALL the dog clubs in the state to contribute information about their events in a timely manner, so the event calendar is as comprehensive as possible.  Beth hopes that as the Guide becomes more and more of a “must have” for Michigan dog lovers, every canine organization or business will feel it’s an important element in their promotional plan.

 

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.

I’m Back!

pet supplies plus logo

 

I’m back from my hiatus from blogging while I was working at Pet Supplies Plus in their corporate headquarters, aka Pet Central as a Marketing Analyst. I thought my job and this blog might be a little too close for comfort for their social media policy. That job was eliminated in January, so I feel free to blog again!   I’ve been invited to talk about this blog at the upcoming WordPress Detroit Meetup on April 9, 2018 and hope to have more new content to share there.

DOGTV – The First Television Channel for dogs

Dog TV logoThis week the New York Times reported on a new cable channel, Dog TV; the story was also picked up by MediaPost.  The first thought that came to my mind, was how are they monetizing this? What advertiser in their right mind would buy space targeted to the canine demographic?  Turns out it’s a pay channel, now only available in San Diego, as an online stream, and an iPhone app.  A national launch is in the plans for late this year.

The premise is that Dog TV is something for your dog to watch while you’re not home, helping to relieve dog owner guilt at leaving the dog alone, further proof people want to offer services for their dogs as they would for human family members.  The channel also purports to help dogs acclimate to a variety of sounds and encourages the dog to relax at certain times and be alert at others.  I’ve spent enough days home with my dogs to know that adult dogs spend most of the day sleeping; I’m not sure they’d go out of their way to wake up for a favorite program.

Overall, the channel is doing a  great job with PR and social media getting the word out as they work toward a the national rollout.  I’m not sure I’ll be popping for an additional premium channel for my dogs, but I’ll check it out if appears in the local cable lineup.

 

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.