Did 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 foods. It’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.
ReBranding 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 has been working with dogs and showing Bull Terriers at AKC events since she was a teenager. She is an AKC Breeder of Merit and was approved as an AKC licensed conformation dog show judge in 2018. Professionally, she has held marketing insights and analytics roles in a variety of industries, including automotive, advertising, and pet specialty retail.