NEW YORK — Continuous improvement is built into the business model for PetPlate, a 100% human-grade, gently cooked, vet-designed dog food brand. Consumer feedback drove the company to rethink its formulas, and PetPlate delivered.
The dog food company had received positive feedback from consumers on its original formulas but, even so, wanted to take its humanized products one step further.
“We used data from our customers over the past six years,” said Renaldo Webb, founder and chief product officer at PetPlate. “Being one of the leaders in the gently cooked, human-grade space, we’ve been able to go to customers, get detailed feedback, and basically what we heard was they really enjoyed how humanized our meals looked and wanted us to take that to the next level.”
Change to its existing formulas included making the meat morsels “chunkier,” improving ingredient blending to make inclusions more visible, and cooking at even lower temperatures. All these changes were made with both consumers — the pet parent and the pet — in mind, in order to create meals that look and smell appetizing not only to a dog, but to a dog mom or dad as well.
“Our targeting was really more focused on the dog, but we did collect a lot of pet parent information in terms of what they thought about the smell, if they thought the product was high-quality, if they believed it met the standards for human-grade, and things such as that using open-ended questions,” Webb said.
To test its revamped formulas, PetPlate partnered with PetMech, a facilitator of in-home feeding trials based in Stillwater, Okla. The feeding trial consisted of dogs of various breeds, weights and lifestyles, with a focus on PetPlate’s target audience, which includes smaller, pickier dogs and designer breeds. Dog owners who participated in the study were trained by PetMech on how to conduct the testing with their pups so they could compare PetPlate’s original formulas with its revamped recipes at home.
The trial was based on a standard A/B palatability test, offering a small serving of an original PetPlate formula versus a small serving of the revamped formula. Pet owners made behavioral assessments — which food was the dog’s first choice — as well as more tangible measurements — how much of each food was eaten — followed by a sensory analysis of both diets by the pet parents themselves.
“Coming from a people-consumer packaged goods perspective and wondering how you get dogs to tell you what they think, this has been really eye opening,” said Matt Sherman, senior vice president of brand marketing at PetPlate. “Understanding PetMech’s ability to build readable data across multiple cohorts, multiple sizes of dogs, multiple ages, breeds, weights, genders — all of those things have been super helpful in helping us to make the case for a human-grade dog food company that’s interesting and valuable.”
Webb told Pet Food Processing the company had already set a high bar with its original formulas and wanted to ensure its revamped formulas were at least “at parity” with the original versions.
“What we ended up seeing was that pet parents in particular enjoyed the look and the smell of the product more, that being driven by it being chunkier, the ingredients being even more visible, things such as that nature,” Webb explained. “On the dog side, while we don’t have any quotes from them, it looked like they enjoyed it twice as much based on how much they ate, the new formulas being the first meal that they went to, and other consumption patterns.”
Dog owners who participated in the study reported a two-fold increase in their dogs’ interest in PetPlate’s revamped formulas. For some protein variations of the products, interest was even greater compared to the original formulas.
“The biggest takeaway for us was that we felt pretty good about our existing product and held it to a pretty high standard,” Sherman said. “The result was, on average, 2:1, but there were some flavors and proteins where we exceeded that and saw 3:1 or 4:1 results. So, we beat parity, but it also gave us the confidence to know that we should keep moving forward.
“It’s also been a bit of an ego check, and a reminder that we aren’t done,” he added. “This is a continuous process. You can think you have a great product, but as soon as you start getting comfortable with that, you should probably keep pushing.”
Ensuring pet owners were enticed by the product is also a priority for PetPlate, and the study PetMech conducted took these insights into account.
“Whether the dog likes it or not is the first question, but once the dog likes it, the pet parent can’t be inconvenienced or annoyed or disgusted with feeding the food on a regular basis to the point where they would seek alternatives,” Sherman said. “They say humans eat with their eyes but dogs eat with their nose — what smells and looks good for a dog is very different from what smells and looks good for us. We wanted to make sure that from the pet parent’s perspective, it looks good and smells good so that they don’t have any issue feeding it to their dog.
“For us, beating our own standards 2:1 is a great consumer opportunity,” he added. “It gives us the ability to go out and say, ‘We have an even better product now.’ In an increasingly competitive category, it gives us an opportunity to stand out with people who might be buying other gently cooked products, people who are exploring gently cooked for the first time and wondering which one to try, and people who have tried us before and want to give us another shot.”
To promote its revamped formulations and entice pet owners to try its new-and-improved formulas, PetPlate has launched a brand campaign spanning affiliate websites, YouTube, social media, email marketing, influencer content, new product packaging and more. The campaign began on April 24 and will run through June 11.
Following the success of its in-home feeding trial with PetMech, PetPlate hopes to conduct further testing to examine other existing products, how its gently cooked formulas stack up with those of its competitors, and how to best articulate the brand’s offerings to consumers in a meaningful way.
“What’s always impressed me, being relatively new to the company, is the commitment to the science and the data behind PetPlate,” Sherman said. “Whether it’s working with our veterinary nutritionist or working with PetMech or digging in deep with our consumers, it’s part of our DNA.
“For a brand that’s always considered itself rooted in science, it’s really helpful to have that validation,” he added. “It’s the weirdest consumer testimonial I’ve ever asked for, but it’s definitely the most helpful. Dogs are very honest — there’s no lying in the focus group.”
According to Webb, PetPlate will remain committed to consumer feedback, the data and science behind its product, and will continue to work toward differentiating itself in the gently cooked category.
Read more about product development, ingredients and formulation.