Pet food and pet treat processors face a daunting marketing challenge today: How to offer the high-quality ingredients and formulas in a variety of convenient packaging options that today’s pet owners want while making sure the product meets the nutritional needs and acceptance of the pet. Finding that balance is the key to success in this market.

Humanization of the pet is expanding into the humanization of pet food. Many humans connect and bond with, and through, food. “As pet parents project human feelings onto their pets, they adopt a more conscious responsibility for the pet’s health and happiness, including the pet’s feeding enjoyment,” says Debra Williams, category manager, AFB International, St. Charles, Missouri. Pets live longer, healthier and happier lives now than they ever have before, according to the 2016 “State of Pet Health” report from Banfield Pet Hospital. With pet owners paying more attention to their furry family members, they push the industry to offer better products for the animals consuming the food.

According to the American Pet Products Association (APPA) National Pet Owners Survey, 68% of US households own a pet. Dog owners spend an average of $307 annually on dog food and treats and cat owners spend $291 per year on cat food and treats. American Nutrition, Inc. surveyed consumers in 2017 and participants said they would increase their dog food spending by 12.2% if presented with a compelling reason or pressing need to do so. Market research firm Gfk estimates that the average price per pound of pet food or pet treats has risen 39% from $1.84 in 2011 to $2.55 in 2015 and the total dog and cat population in North America is 178 million.

“The trends are showing that not only are there more dogs and cats in households than ever before, but that consumer spending has continued to increase on pets as well,” shares Kamie Eckert, president, Royal Canin USA, St. Charles, Missouri. “People are viewing their pets as members of their households, and as such, treat them like any other family member. They are willing to spend more to provide them with, what they view as, the proper nutrition to keep them healthy.”

Beliefs drive purchases

Pet food formulas need to meet the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) nutritional requirements for a complete and balanced diet. After that, pet food processors look for differentiation to align with the consumer beliefs, like natural, targeted-nutrients or non-grain. After aligning with the consumer’s beliefs, it must feed well. Williams points out that as food formulations adjust to meet the buyers’ beliefs, palatants must be developed to have a synergy that appeals to the pet. Palatants enhance the taste of dog and cat foods, treats and supplements and help ensure pets consume the food and in turn receive the nutrients they need from the products.

“Outside of meeting the basic nutrition and palatability that will bring and keep the pet at the bowl, it comes down to the buyers’ beliefs behind the decision,” Williams says. “There are some pet parents who look for ancestral diets that are high in protein or meat, others look for culinary diets with fruits, vegetables or ancient grains, while still others want to focus on diets based on science for targeted health benefits.” Each buyer’s belief will create different approaches to meeting the basic objectives of nutritionally-sound and palatably-pleasing food for the pet.

One size fits all is gone. Other food categories have taught consumers to expect products “made for me.”  Explains Laurent Barbotin, general manager North America, Diana Pet Food, Hodges, South Carolina, “Pet owners want to buy the pet food which not only fits the exact nutritional need of their pet but also caters to their personal ethics, beliefs and values. E-commerce only increases this. A pet owner can now shop online for the brands he feels are right for him and his pet.” Demand for convenience, traceability, sustainability and clean labels are all having an impact on the plethora of options available.

Pet parents are becoming increasingly aware that the right diet can help their pets live longer, happier lives and they are embracing the diet they believe will accomplish that. A belief that ingredients must be biologically appropriate drives demand for species-appropriate ingredients that mimic the natural, wild-prey diet of their pet’s ancestors. “The whole-prey diet trend is especially important for cats, which are obligate carnivores, and must eat meat to survive,” says Mary Helen Horn, president, Ziwi USA, Overland Park, Kansas. “As cat owners become more aware of the importance of meat in their pet’s diet, they are moving away from grain- and plant-based foods and towards those containing high levels of meat.”

Consumers are also paying a lot more attention to where and how their own foods are sourced, and that trend is carrying over to pet foods. Characteristics such as free-range, grass-fed, hormone-free, GMO-free and antibiotic-free are becoming more important to pet owners. As superfoods continue to be popular in human foods, pet foods and treats with real fruits and vegetables like natural blueberries are attracting pet owners’ attention. They’re scrutinizing what is in their pet’s food, and are willing to pay more for clean, premium sourcing.

Processors answer with new products

Brand managers continually evaluate what’s important to humans and adapt or expand their product offerings to match human pet-feeding preferences. Royal Canin reports that pet owners are continuing to provide treats for their pets as a means of showing their love. When it comes to cats, they see similar feeding trends as they do with dogs with the exception that cat owners are providing more mixed feedings of both dry and canned foods. But the overall desire to provide a beneficial treat is universal with both cat and dog owners. In support of that desire, Royal Canin developed a veterinary-exclusive line of treats for dogs and cats that have therapeutic needs. This allows pets to have treats in conjunction with their veterinary-recommended diets that may prevent them from consuming standard treats.

Other brands are addressing health issues as well. Redbarn Pet Products, Long Beach, California, offers a low-temperature-cooked, meat-rich, grain-free food roll that they suggest for dogs with stomach sensitivity or skin allergies. High-protein formulas from Nulo Pet Food, Austin, Texas, feature grain-free, low-glycemic carb sources and a patented probiotic that supports digestive and immune health. “As carnivores, acceptance of our high-meat formulas by dogs and cats is naturally very high,” says Michael Landa, founder and CEO, Nulo Pet Food. “By minimizing the level of carbs and using only low-glycemic ingredients like chickpeas, sweet potatoes and lentils, Nulo’s diets help to reduce the risk of obesity and other weight-related issues. This results in healthier pets, more confident pet owners, and an approach to nutrition that can translate across multiple food formats, packaging types, and distribution channels.”

People are focusing more on whole, natural foods for themselves – so they want the same for their pets, whom they regard as family members. This has resulted in the increased popularity of natural pet foods. “Raw diets, as well as freeze-dried and air-dried alternatives to raw, are leading the growth in the natural category, having more than doubled in sales since 2013,” Horn says. “This trend is expected to continue as pet parents look for foods that mirror their pets’ whole-prey ancestral diets. Ziwi Air-Dried provides the nutritional benefits of a raw diet, but is shelf-stable, convenient, and safe to handle.”

Pets are the priority

Eckert explains Royal Canin’s approach. “We stay true to who we are as a company, grounded in science, research and innovation because we focus first on the pet. While we see different consumer trends in the marketplace, the nutritional needs of the dog and cat is our true north. As we constantly innovate to meet pet health challenges and changing needs in the marketplace for packaging size, palatability options and delivery mechanisms, the nutrition that goes into each bag and can is rooted in our 50 years of innovation and research. We will not create any diet, regardless of current trends, that does not place the pets’ nutritional needs first.”

The most effective diet, of course, will not work if a dog or cat will not eat it. “Royal Canin takes pride in seeing the observable outcome in the pet’s health as a result of eating one of our formulas,” Eckert adds. “If there is a need for the pet, whether a therapeutic need or a very unique difference for that dog or cat based on something like breed, size or life stage, we want the owner to see results in the pet’s health, coat, skin and energy.”

For Nulo, a Labrador retriever named Max plays a key role. Landa explains. “I ask myself is this something that I would feed to my dog, Max? More than simply eating their food, pets should love the experience of meal time. What we put into their bowl once or twice a day – every single day of their lives – has a major impact on their quality of life, and their happiness. Providing a solution is our priority. A product must be able to make the owner’s and pet’s lives better in some way. Whether it’s offering a resealable closure to make storage more convenient, or putting an end to finicky behavior, both pets and their owners embrace an effective product that solves a problem.”

Barbotin sums up Diana Pet Food’s priority: “Pets always have the last word.”

How pets buy in

Redbarn Pet Products, Long Beach, California, works with partners to conduct two kinds of testing to determine if a formula is a winner with pets. “We run digestibility and palatability testing to first, see how our food compares to other brands and second, to determine how bioavailable the nutrients are,” says Rashell Cooper, marketing director, Redbarn Pet Products. “We don’t release a product that doesn’t exceed both industry and internal standards in these tests.”

Williams explains that there are several ways to assess palatability performance, from consumption measurements with a paired comparison (two-bowl) or monadic (single-bowl) test to behavior measurements with a “nose-in-bowl” type of test which measures the amount of time a dog spends sniffing or chewing food compared to the amount of time the food is available. The protocols for each assessment provide different insights and data outputs.

Diana Pet Food engages a team of healthy, happy and unstressed pets through their Panelis measurement center. “We offer innovative methodologies to provide manufacturers with unique insights into pet’s preferences and behaviors,” Barbotin says. “We conduct in-home studies with pet owners whose perception of their pet’s feeding enjoyment also complements the diagnosis of a winning formula.”

Approach has changed

As product offerings rapidly adapt to changing trends, how brands market to pet owners has evolved as well. “Over the past five years, we have completely transformed the way we market our brand,” Eckert says. “When I first joined Royal Canin, we were not talking directly to the pet owner and instead focused solely on the recommender: veterinary clinics, breeders and retailers. With the rapid growth in e-commerce and internet research, we realized we needed a marketing approach that connects with consumers in addition to the prescriber. This includes a national advertising campaign on television, online and in magazines as well as participation in key events throughout the year, including the nation’s largest dog show, the AKC National Championship Presented by Royal Canin. We will always prioritize our outreach to veterinarians, as we want the conversation around nutrition to be discussed with consumers and their vet, and we will continue to engage our retailers and e-commerce partners as well, because we recognize the importance of consumers understanding what makes our products unique.”

Horn explains that Ziwi’s approach has become much more intentional. “In the past two years, we’ve grown from a small, relatively unknown company to a recognized leader in pet nutrition,” Horn says. “We’ve always had a great product and story, but very little was being done to drive brand awareness. In 2017, we rebranded and completely updated our packaging, and we’re now taking a multi-faceted approach to our marketing, through the utilization of print, digital and social media platforms. This has vastly increased our brand recognition with pet specialty retailers and pet owners.”

Actively listening has been a key ingredient to Nulo’s success. “We keep a continuous open dialogue with our retailer partners and customers to hear what their needs are and how we can best meet them,” Landa explains. “This helps our retailers to better position Nulo’s product offerings to meet consumer demands, gives us insight into evolving consumer trends, and allows our retailers to play a vital role in determining our evolving product roadmap. We focus on helping our retailers connect with active lifestyle pet parents in their local communities – either through social media campaigns, lifestyle events or in-store merchandising tactics. We also implemented on-demand educational resources for retailers and staff to encourage continued learning and articulation of how Nulo’s products address current market demands.”

Education resources has also been successful for Redbarn. Cooper says, “For us, displaying educational materials at point-of-purchase is key to increasing sales. In addition, proper training of store associates on the benefits of grain-free food and the benefits of specific active ingredients will help better address the health needs of their customers. Giving associates questions to ask, for example, ‘Does your pet have any food allergies or sensitivities? What is your biggest concern about your pet’s health? Do they have a favorite protein?’ helps retailers better tailor their suggestions to the individual pet and provide a more personalized experience for the customer.”

Staying relevant

Aside from meeting the nutritional regulatory guidelines around the globe, pet food processors must keep a finger on the pulse of the consumer they serve. The enhanced relationship enjoyed by both pet and parent through an enjoyable feeding experience, or treat bonding experience, is a valuable benefit for which pet owners are willing to pay. If a pet food is going to remain relevant with today’s consumer, they must provide a portfolio of products that resonate with the buyer’s beliefs while enticing the pet’s enthusiasm for the food.

Horn believes Ziwi’s role is to educate and lead the charge of helping pets live longer, healthier lives through improved diet. “To be effective, we must maintain the trust of our consumers by being transparent and responsive to their questions and concerns, and by being a leader of research and best practices in pet nutrition. As an innovator and a leader in air-dried pet nutrition, Ziwi will remain relevant by bringing continual innovation in that market.”

Eckert says, “To us, it’s very simple: While all of our diets are grounded in science and research, they must meet the unique needs of the pet, they must be palatable, and they must deliver healthy outcomes for cats and dogs. We live in such a cluttered world where we are constantly being bombarded with brands, even if we don’t realize it. The key for Royal Canin is to stay true to our core belief in science-based nutrition and meet a need that ultimately makes the world a better place for cats and dogs.”

Keep up with the latest pet food trends on our Trends page.