Millennials: the Ultimate pet food game changers

With the rise of millennials as the largest consumer group, pet beds are taking the place of baby beds and “pet parents” are demanding more convenience, transparency and sustainability.

As millennials have reached the point in their lives in which they are now active consumers, their previously ignored demands and desires must now be tended to. While there is much negative press about the group as a whole regarding loyalty, suspicion and lack of interest in others, millennials have matured into a group of socially aware consumers. With this comes a demand that the brands that they purchase are transparent about every aspect of their business: from the types and sources of ingredients to the manufacturing processes and even sustainability initiatives in place at the corporate level.

The distrust that millennials have for large corporations has led to an embracing of small brands with a real message that hits home. This is particularly evident in regards to ingredient sourcing and sustainability initiatives. Small brands have made a name for themselves by detailing their quality ingredients with ultimate transparency. Similarly, brands that tout sustainability in regards to the ingredients that go into their foods receive high marks.

In the past, many of these small brands were ignored by the big players in the industry, but now those brands are targets for acquisition. Recognizing what these small players are doing right, but realizing the challenge for a large firm to morph into this new image is the precise reason behind these purchases.

But this is not enough. Convenience is important to the millennial shopper. The online market for pet products has exploded recently. PetSmart purchased chewy.com in the largest e-commerce acquisition to date in order to expand its lagging presence in the online space. Busy people demand convenience and what is more convenient than having your pet’s favorite food and treats auto-shipped right to your door on a regular schedule? Brands that don’t find themselves with a value proposition online will be left behind.

Finally, companies must learn to embrace the new normal of pets as children. Social media is where we see the strongest evidence of the role that pets play in people’s lives. Influencers in social media are people (or pets) with large followings whether on Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat. The Huffington Post published an article in March 2017 listing the best dogs to follow on Instagram. Obviously the dogs are not posting, but their “parents” are. And it is really hard not to fall in love with some of these adorable pets and their antics.

The pet food industry does not look anything like it did 10 years ago. The grain-free revolution was the start of the disruption that has led to this new normal. As companies work to catch up, it will be interesting to watch where things go next.

"I know everything I read online is true, but..."

I think this could be the title of an entire series of topics, from ingredient definitions to pet nutrition to online complaints. But today I am focusing on online complaints.

Every single day, I talk to pet food consumers who have looked online to find out if there is a problem with the food they have been feeding before they contact the company. One of the most commonly mentioned websites is ConsumerAffairs.com. This website has been around for quite some time and has been collecting reviews and complaints about all sorts of products, not just pet food. Companies can choose to pay for a subscription to control the content that appears on their pages. For those that do not choose to pay, it is a crap shoot as to what might appear.

When you go to this site and search a particular brand, midway down the page, there is a box that says “How do I know I can trust these reviews about XYZ brand?” It states that 572,721 reviews on this site are verified. It does not say how many reviews are not verified, but I can tell you that of the 4 pet food brands I searched, only the two brands that were paying to be “Consumer Affairs Accredited” had verified reviewers posting on their page. I also searched some brands that I use in my own home (unrelated to pet) and did not find verified reviewers on any of those pages.

So, is paying to control the content the way to go? The first brand I looked at has over one thousand reviews and a 5 star rating. Every post on the first page was a 5 star positive rating. The second brand that I looked at had just over 300 reviews with a 2.5 star rating. Their first 3 reviews that appear were all 5 star reviews, but were all from 2015. Scrolling down a bit, there is a 1 star rating from last week, followed by a 5 star rating from earlier this month. Then it got interesting. There were a series of posts that were grayed out with lines striking through the text (still able to read it). These reviews were marked with a large red X and said “Factual basis uncertain”. Other reviews/complaints had a large green checkmark with “Resolved outside Consumer Affairs” inscribed in the icon. Obviously the subscription has not done much to elevate the overall rating for this brand, but it has limited the negative posts that have a position of prominence on the 2 brands that do not have a subscription.

So, on to the brands that don’t pay the fees. The first one had over fifteen hundred reviews and just under a two star rating. The reviews on this page were in chronological order and the first two were positive reviews, giving the brand 5 stars. The rest of the page had more than 20 one star reviews, describing a variety of illnesses supposedly caused by the food itself. Some of these reviews are just flabbergasting to read. One of the one star reviews describes a dog that started having soft stools, progressing to diarrhea over a 4 month period. Yes, four months. They thought maybe he got into something, so they put him on a bland diet and then reintroduced the food, which brought the diarrhea right back. Not sure when they thought he might have gotten into something, four months ago? So, finally a trip to the vet and prescription food and medication has resolved the issue. Two months after they tried the home remedy of a bland diet. Seriously? You let your dog suffer for six months before going to the vet and you are blaming this on the brand? Of course, who knows if this is a true story, but if it is, I would be embarrassed to post it. It is not uncommon for dogs to develop dietary intolerances to ingredients or combinations of ingredients. There certainly can be a problem with a batch of food, we all know this happens. But, the same problem is not going to happen over multiple batches of food manufactured over a six month period of time.

Looking at the fourth and final brand, there are more than 1100 reviews and an overall rating of just more than one star. There are more than 25 one star reviews on the first page that appears. Reading through these reviews, one in particular stuck out to me. According to the post, after feeding this food, the dog developed brown saliva that was staining things. They switched foods and the problem resolved. And oh, by the way, the dog had a tumor on its tongue that was removed prior to switching brands. Do you think maybe the tumor had something to do with the brown saliva? No, couldn’t be. Had to be the food.

People love their pets. They are family members. I don’t think that if your child had diarrhea, you would wait six months before heading to the pediatrician, but I could be wrong about that. Pets get sick. In some cases, it could be caused by something that went wrong with the food. In other cases, it could be caused by the food but unrelated to a problem with the food, simply that that food is not right for that pet, even if it had worked well in the past. Sure, some pets can eat the same food every day from weaning until they pass away at a ripe old age, but that is not always the case and “pet parents” don’t always seem to understand that. They also don’t seem to always understand that what they read online may not be an accurate representation, often saying “I know everything I read online isn’t true, but…”

So, is it worth it to pay to control the content on these sites? I personally don’t think so. This is just one site of many, albeit a highly visible site that customers can easily find when they google “complaints about brand X”. I suppose if you have an unlimited “damage control” budget, paying this site and the next site and the next site might be feasible. But when does it stop?

In this age of information, companies must choose their messaging platforms wisely. They must be committed to positive messaging and certainly be committed to transparency when something goes wrong. If these posts are concerning, money might be better spent by going through the complaints posted on some of these sites and having your veterinarian “debunk” them. But another valid approach is simply to say, “We are aware of this site and the posts that you have read. We have no way to verify whether any of the information, good or bad, that is posted there is valid. We can only investigate issues and concerns that are reported to us, which is why we have a phone number and a website and a facebook page, etc.”

Many consumers want to know that you hear them, that you will look into their specific problem and that you have quality and safety programs in place to prevent a food related issue from occurring. When you can honestly tell a consumer that a particular batch had 2000 bags (or 1000 or 4000, whatever it may be) shipped to “x” different locations and not a single other issue has been reported, you can turn the conversation away from these posts that “say exactly the same thing that my pet is going through”. In the 13 years that I have been working in veterinary customer support for the pet food industry, there have been vast changes in nearly every aspect of the industry from the types of ingredients being used to the food safety systems in place to the modes of communication that we use. Personalized customer support is extremely valuable, but not always recognized as such. 

Simple and Clean - Can We Alter the Discussion?

I previously dished on whether or not pet food could achieve a clean label, concluding that this is likely a challenge that will not be able to be overcome in mass produced complete and balanced pet foods, but will be interesting to watch as it unfolds.

Food Business News posted an interesting article about simple ingredients yesterday. The article featured thoughts from the IFT 16 meeting held July 16-19 in Chicago. How do you maintain a clean label in a processed product that needs to remain on a shelf for 6 months or 12 months and still have its nutritional features intact?  Well, you simply might not be able to.

So, what is driving this clean label trend? Like many things, it is consumer demand, driven by perception. In this case, it is backed up by nutritionists that agree that eating a diet that is made up of whole, unprocessed foods such as fruits and vegetables is better for our health. So, consumers will be compelled to read the labels of processed foods, looking for something that is as close to the original state as possible, but with the convenience of a packaged food.

Interestingly, the topic of the failure as an industry to properly educate the consumer came up repeatedly. Instead of educating the consumer about a particular ingredient that is perceived negatively, there is often a move to seek an alternative. While the alternative may be better, this is not necessarily the case. This is not meant to be an argument against progress, but something to really think about. Science is hard. And it can be tough to explain in a way that someone without a scientific education or career can understand. I think that companies would be doing their consumers a real favor by making an effort to truly educate them regarding ingredient definitions, ingredient functions and the realities of processing.

When ingredients are vilified, does this do the industry any favors? When pet food formulas were mostly by-product meal and corn based, companies looked for alternative protein and carbohydrate sources, often at a higher cost. What better way to justify the higher cost of one product over another? Talk bad about the other product!

Is a diet made with chicken by-product meal and corn really a bad option for a dog? Absolutely not. While different foods certainly differ in quality and nutritional composition, an excellent product could have these ingredients on its label. These types of diets have lost their place in the super premium, natural or holistic channels from a consumer perspective for certain. And many brands have stepped up to meet the consumer demand for something that they perceive as more nutritious or more natural.

On the flipside of this, now we are seeing diets containing by-products, touting the benefits of the entire animal being included in the formula. While these ingredients read as bone, kidney, liver, etc on the label, they add up to the much maligned ingredient labeled as by-products or by-product meal.  So it seems that in this case, the industry has come full circle and guess what? The consumers seem to be taking it all in stride.

While I still believe that a clean label is unrealistic for most commercial pet foods, I do think that it is bringing an opportunity to the forefront. Consumers demand transparency. Use this demand to provide the real story about ingredients in your product. While there will always be negative information about specific ingredients, providing the story about what makes your product safe, nutritious and wholesome will be embraced by your customers when presented in the right way. And we all know that there will never be a product out there that checks every single box for every single customer, but that is the beauty of this industry. There is always another option…

Clean label in pet food—is achieving it possible?

MELISSA BROOKSHIRE, DVM

Big players in the human food market are reformulating to meet consumer demands for a clean label. Companies like Campbell Soup, Kellogg and Nestlé are removing artificial colors and flavors, as well as simplifying ingredient lists in such popular products as breakfast cereal and ice cream. Transparency is a critical component in the business of feeding humans and animals, and the clean label movement is one tool the industry is embracing to satisfy the customer’s need for information.

So what exactly is a clean label? Just as the term “natural” remains undefined in the human food industry, “clean label” is also open to interpretation. A study from the NPD Group surveyed 5,000 consumers and found that 80% of “clean eaters” considered this a lifestyle, not a trend. The most important features of a clean diet for those surveyed were foods that do not contain chemicals, preservatives, additives or pesticides. Without a clear definition or any regulatory guidelines, the door for class-action litigation is open, so proceeding with caution is advisable.

So if we use the criteria of no chemicals, preservatives, additives or pesticides, how does the pet food industry ever achieve a clean label? It is certainly possible to eliminate chemicals in pet food, but preservatives are a necessary component of most types of pet food formulations. While there are options that meet the regulatory definition of natural, they may not meet the consumer definition of natural. Additives can be anything from processing aids to essential vitamins and minerals. And the elimination of all pesticides at any point in the growing of a grain, legume, fruit or vegetable wanders over into the organic category, which is costly and limited in supply.

Another component of clean labeling in human food is simple recipes. Taking a recipe for 20 or more ingredients down to just seven or eight allows the consumer to quickly assess exactly what is contained in the processed food they are purchasing. We are seeing this trickle over into pet food, with many brands talking about limited ingredients or simple recipes. Of course, with complete and balanced formulas, there are numerous vitamin and mineral ingredients that are added to the formula. So just like the exception allowed with natural claims for the vitamins and minerals in the recipe, exceptions are being claimed for these ingredients in limited ingredient diets.

Unlike natural claims for pet food, there is no regulatory standard for limited ingredient or simple recipe statements. Voluntary claims are subject to the regulatory official’s opinion on whether or not the language is misleading to the consumer. While this offers the opportunity to defend the marketing position, it can also result in a state taking a firm stand and requiring the language to be modified or even removed. With the increase in the use of limited ingredient diet descriptions, there are plans to discuss the creation of a guideline or definition for the Association of American Feed Control Officials’ Official Publication. This will be interesting an interesting topic to watch as it evolves over time.

Homemade pet food - Is it really that hard?

The evolution of the pet food industry is fascinating to watch. The move by consumers from economy to premium foods has been well-documented. A recent blog post by Debbie Phillips-Donaldson discussed the challenges that the premium and super-premium category are facing, particularly in the realm of meeting consumer demands at a price that consumers are willing to pay.

From the customer support side of my business, I can completely relate. It is certainly a common occurrence to hear from a consumer that wants something very specific to be changed about a formula. “Why can’t you make this food without sweet potatoes, they will make my dog fat?” or “Why can’t you use duck instead of chicken because my cat is allergic to chicken?” The take home message from these common inquiries is that consumers want a custom made formula that meets their pet’s specific needs (perceived or actual) but they reach out to manufacturers maybe because they are satisfied with the brand, the company and even more importantly, the price.

After the 2007 recall that impacted a massive portion of the industry, pet owners became more interested in home-cooked diets, or diets that seem home-cooked. In June 2013, a study was published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. The study was done by veterinary nutritionists at the University of California-Davis and included analyses of 200 home-prepared diets. Recipes were found online, in textbooks and in cookbooks for pets. Of the 200 diets, only 9 were found to be complete and balanced for adult dogs per the AAFCO nutrient tables. Based on this study, it does seem that making homemade pet food really is pretty hard.

In 2014, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “More Pet Brands Target Owners Who Like to Cook Their Own Dog Food – The Honest Kitchen, Sojos, Freshpet are fresh new names in the $21 billion U.S. pet food business”. These brands occupy a space for the consumer that wants to feed a diet that seems more like something they would prepare themselves, without the work and worry (and expense) that goes into home preparation of complete and balanced foods for pets. Of course there are other examples of companies that have entered this niche market since 2014.

So, what about the consumer that wants a true “homemade” diet without the DIY factor? There are companies currently entering the space with subscription service home delivered meals for dogs. New York City and Los Angeles are two markets where these services are growing. These companies have eye catching websites showing meals that look better than many of the meals served at my table! They also include claims of being complete and balanced, some without any added vitamin or mineral supplements. Costs vary, but generally these meals are going to cost a pretty penny. To feed my dog for a single week, I calculated that the cost would be more than $100 from one of these services. Now, I do have a large dog, but even to feed a small (20#) dog, the food would cost about $30 per week. For many pet owners, this simply is not a feasible option.

Fascinating things are happening in the pet industry and consumers are constantly looking for the new best thing for their pet. Pet food manufacturers respond with new formulas to meet consumer demand for grain free diets, diets with fresh meats, diets with fruits and vegetables, all in a convenient bag or can. For the consumer out there that wants a true home-cooked option, some companies are stepping up to fill that space. While I want to say that this category will never become a significant percentage of the pet food market overall, sometimes things occur that defy our expectations. It will be interesting to watch as this evolves.

 

The Customer is Always Right? Really?

Pet food customers demand a high level of transparency. The business of feeding pets requires a level of empathy and compassion that may not be required in many other businesses. Arming your customer service team with the right tools and information to keep existing customers satisfied is a critical component of good business practices.

But My Food Really is GMO Free...Why Can't I Put This on My Packaging?

Marketing claims on pet food packaging are often not clearly defined in the regulatory guidelines, but there are many acceptable and not so acceptable claims that are well known in the industry.