Posts in Pet food

New concept in pet brand building: kitchens

Will Pet Brands Stop Resisting Differentiation?

October 28th, 2020 Posted by Brand preference, brand strategy, change, Differentiation, engagement, Pet care, Pet food, Pet food marketing, shopper behavior, storytelling, Transparency 0 comments on “Will Pet Brands Stop Resisting Differentiation?”

How to punch above your weight and win

When shopping the aisles of a pet food store you’ve likely noticed an amazing array of new brand players on one hand, and on the other difficulty distinguishing anything truly unique between the options. Blurry at best as the protein percentage wars rage everywhere around you.

Pet care is a robust and growing business that works to float all brand boats. For now at least.

  • More pet-owning households than ever
  • More adoptions from rescue centers
  • More puppies and kittens at home
  • More mouths to feed

Even in the midst of a pandemic and economic recession the growth record is notably positive.

That said what happens when you reach a competitive tipping point as the number of brands multiplies (supply) while vying for a piece of the current volume and dollar pie (demand)? Right there, strategic best practices highly recommend nurturing true brand differentiation in the eyes of the consumer. When differences are marginal though, then what?

Read on…

This challenge gets to the heart of pet care brand conditions, a business personified by its Low Differentiation and High Durability traits among category participants. This is a healthy business ripe for disruption – when the right moves are made.

Understanding pet brand category behaviors

How is it that so many pet brands are holding firm right now?

The size of the pie is expanding. Brands that are similar to each other while exhibiting staying power are all playing by familiar rules – at least until an innovator comes along and changes the playbook.

A landscape of comparable brands with parallel nutritional claims and ingredient stories, arguing for advantage in the margins, is a living example of:

  • A study in brand incrementalism
  • Marginally better quality to the winners in each segment
  • Pricing that stays in the segment frame, forcing choice on other more subjective cues
  • A curious tit-for-tat marketplace where brands monitor and react quickly to copy competitor moves (ancient grains anyone?)
  • Where staying in the competition is more important than distinguishing the brand as a unique star player

Premium kibble is kibble for the most part, although every brand understandably claims to be nutritionally superior to their equivalent price-point neighbor. That said, the language used to convey better or best bears remarkable sameness brand to brand.

Looking for marketplace advantage

When you work hard to create and earn high buyer value, the end result makes competition increasingly irrelevant. Where the pet business is generally a ground game of less differentiated brands, the sweet spot of disrupting category conventions is secured by moving from lower to higher differentiation.

Achieving greater uniqueness can happen when focused sharply on a marketplace buyer segment – a specific type of customer, where the brand strives to be hyper relevant and meaningful to a lifestyle cohort. Take for instance the consumer pursuing a health and wellness lifestyle, where the importance placed on the quality of what you eat is directly related to their perceived quality of life.

Inevitably, this consumer will transfer that same viewpoint to their pet food choices. While one could say wellness is the province of raw food brands, even there, the word raw has been democratized throughout the category in slightly de-tuned versions such as freeze-dried toppers, chunks and kibble inclusions.

Channel as a disruptive idea

Just Food For Dogs (JFFD) based in Irvine, CA has found a way to re-think the path to market.

Their model involves free-standing retail kitchens that make fresh pet food on premise, a concept optimized for higher income zip codes where the cost per pound is less important to the perceived nutritional upgrade in a freshly-prepared diet. The opportunities for customization to specific pet needs is remarkable and embedded in this concept.

Company President Carey Tischler explained this is the beginning of a national expansion: “our kitchens are an incredibly effective means of showing, not just telling, pet parents how we are different – and how fresh, whole-food can change their pets’ lives. With nine open-to-the-public kitchens serving pet parents today, and several more kitchens under consideration for 2021, our national expansion is already well underway,” he said.

Human food ingredients re-purposed for pet food recipes

Their Chicago kitchen entry now under construction sits cheek-to-jowl with the city’s largest, most progressive and well-known pet rescue The PAWS Foundation – a virtual mini-industry in moving abandoned or stray pets to new homes. Ahem, that’s new food-seeking pet owners. Across the street is Petco, a retailer that is stocking a shelf-stable packaged version of Just Foods For Dogs pet food.

Is JFFD a retail pet food kitchen company with an aligned packaged business to serve consumers where no retail kitchen exists? Or a packaged pet foods company with a unique retail kitchen extension that serves as marketplace theater and demonstration of their fresh food ethos?

Shelf stable versions of fresh recipes

“We view our business as a direct-to-consumer ecosystem,” Tischler reports, “and manage it as such – with each channel supported by our Certified Nutrition Consultants. The kitchens are a critical part of the business model, but they work in concert with our pantries (store-in-store concept) and online offering. We have a lot of evidence these channels are synergistic and effectively support each other, driving brand awareness and offering convenience to pet parents.”

Freshly made pet foods from the kitchen

In response to pandemic impacts, Tischler says the company is leaning into curb-side pickup at their kitchen locations or home delivery through third-party providers.

What’s interesting about this approach is its relevance to a like-minded consumer who sees higher food quality as verified by the fresh ingredients and preparation techniques used to preserve nutritional density. The very same food preferences they apply to themselves can now be delivered to their pet in a Chipotle-like store setting. At the very least, it’s a disruptive idea.

  • Of note, we think Just Food For Dogs has a significant opportunity to weigh in on transparency, ingredient sourcing and food standards to further enhance their nutritional credibility story, although we haven’t seen that manifest as yet. Transparency is a unique point of competitive advantage in an industry where it’s largely a missed opportunity.

Just Food For Dogs is a marvelous study in innovation around a category governed mostly by conventional extruded solutions.

In mainstream retail FreshPet presents an interesting twist on packaged products and certainly deserves the growth they’ve experienced. However, we believe even more can be done to separate and elevate brands above the forest of sameness. Differentiation operates to attract a cohort of engaged, enthusiastic fans who have a deeper, emotional connection to the brand that is stronger, frankly, than a reason to buy focused on protein percentages.

Zig when everyone else zags

In the last seven months the pandemic has served as the most important personal priority- shifting mechanism of the last 30 years, advancing the importance of health and wellness to sheer survival. Taking care of your immune system is now a clarion example of how consumers reassert some control over their lives in an uncontrollable societal and environmental setting.

We’ve characterized this as Health is the New Wealth. Yet this development has not translated fully to pet food.

Pet lifestyle is a real thing. We believe there are ample numbers of households that operate daily around the pet-to-parent dynamic. A consumer insight-savvy brand could embrace a lifestyle platform that rises over the ubiquitous discussion of human-grade proteins and fresh vegetables ingredient trope. It would be a ‘zig’ to emerge above the endless chatter about real meat, chicken or fish and tag the emotional equation of what higher quality pet food is intended to do: The quality of the food provided is the ultimate expression of love for furry family members.

Addressing and leveraging consumer lifestyle affords a much deeper conversation on topics more relevant and resonant to the pet food buyer than food science and dietary claims. It’s also inherently an emotional construct, key to engagement and message impact.

Pandemic and purpose-based brand building

COVID-19 has operated to refocus people on their beliefs, purpose and societal values that contribute tangibly to the greater good. These considerations are influencing brand preference and purchase. Up to this point organic ingredients haven’t been widely employed outside of a handful of pet brands. The word sustainability continues in some respects as a form of check-the-box afterthought invoked like a Whole30 label certification.

Organic is really about farming methods more friendly to the environment and less damaging to our climate. Sustainability, likewise, can be viewed optically as regenerative agriculture practices that if widely adopted could help turn farmland into the world’s largest carbon sink.

These ideas can be repackaged as a move to address carbon footprint, playing a decisive role in managing the existential threat of climate change on our future wellbeing. Could this become an embedded mission for a pet food brand? We think so. Pet food is a very big user of feedlot meat and agricultural ingredients that in a larger sense of their production are among the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas on the planet.

  • Carbon footprint is starting to show up now on select human food labels. We believe this is the start of a major trend. It will be interesting to see how it translates in pet food marketing.

Whether it’s channel and business model differentiation, a switch to lifestyle marketing and communication, or embracing a mission around climate change, each of these ideas represents a potential new tool in the standard go-to-market toolbox.  Concepts that were popularized in recent years by premiumization of the pet food business and the dawn of popular grain-free formulation claims.

The latter became a herd-like move. We observed most premium brands quickly shifting to emphasize the ancestral diet blueprint.

  • Yet this becomes the very reason to consider a strategic move towards greater differentiation not less. If supporting high buyer value – moving past common ingredient stories – makes your competition less relevant wouldn’t you seriously consider it?

We know this is hard. It feels risky. It sounds like bucking category norms. Will the consumer react well to it? Of note, consumer interest is a testable proposition. In what is mostly a sea of sameness, clear observable brand distinction can be a highly prized and leverageable asset.

If exploring new thinking and fresh ideas sounds like a good conversation to have, we welcome the opportunity to think with you. Use this link to open what could be a very interesting and rewarding conversation.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to the Emerging Trends Report.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact Bob@Emergent-Comm.com and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

Pet brand sameness works against brand engagement

How to Disrupt the Sea of Sameness

September 16th, 2020 Posted by brand marketing, brand messaging, Brand preference, brand strategy, branded content, CMO, consumer behavior, Consumer insight, Content Marketing, Emerging brands, Emotional relevance, engagement, Healthy Living, Higher Purpose, Pet food, Pet food marketing, Retail brand building, retail brand relevance 0 comments on “How to Disrupt the Sea of Sameness”

Similar brand strategies lead to undifferentiated communication

Nowhere do we find the unrelenting challenge of sameness operating in full relief more often than the pet food business. No matter what product or retail category you are in, the requirement for message uniqueness and differentiation has never been higher. Here’s how to disrupt the pattern of sameness that follows brands around like a virus.

The good news: The pet food industry is expanding, fueled in part by the dramatic growth of pet owning households, now forecasted to reach 71 million in the U.S. by the close of 2020. Despite economic climate challenges, runaway joblessness and the vagaries of changing shopping behaviors spawned by the pandemic, pet business trends continue on an upward trajectory. The pandemic has served as a catalyst for elevating the pet value proposition. We need our furry companions now more than ever.

The tougher news: Yet despite this picture of continued potential prosperity that floats all premium pet brand boats, the competitive players seem to be held captive in a repetitive messaging loop that confronts pet parents trying to navigate the store aisles. Everywhere their eyes scan, the sea of storytelling sameness stares back, defeating opportunities to connect on an emotional level.

  • What marketing medicine is required to get pet brands to stop and reconsider the path to engagement? To step beyond, above and outside their tendency to reinforce similar tropes about formulation integrity, while intractably married to the protein percentage wars, and accented by assertions of nutritional superiority or human grade ingredient quality.

Everyone believes they make the best food. Indeed, many brands now have upgraded the quality of their ingredient sourcing and formulation techniques, to offer truly nutritionally- dense solutions. But does the pet parent make decisions on the cold analysis of facts and figures? The answer is no they don’t.

Here’s what we know:

  • People run in the opposite direction, away from complicated brain taxing messaging that would require them to study and consider elaborate details of pet nutrition.
  • Human beings are feeling creatures who think and not thinking creatures who feel. It is heart- over-head, always.
  • Trust is an issue in pet food driven in part by the elaborate claims of human quality food ingredients magically encapsulated in a small brown nugget known as kibble. It looks industrial to start with.

The quite natural conclusion of most pet marketing plans is focusing inwardly on all the reasons why brand X pet food is better than brands Y or Z. The incredible efforts undertaken by companies to make a high-quality product IS the story, correct?

The challenging outcome of this thinking is a recipe for similar statements and claims that operate in conflict with the fundamental requirement for brand uniqueness and differentiation. Hence the sea of sameness.

How to break the cycle of sameness.

What does the pet parent care about? Their pet. The incredible emotional bond that sits between them is unshakeable and demonstrable and visceral and real. What is pet food? It is the instrument of expressing love and care for their pet’s wellbeing and healthy longevity. Why? Because they have connected the dots between the quality of what they themselves eat and their quality of life, a point of view that translates over in a nano-second to their beliefs about pet wellness.

We know it’s really tough to refocus marketing on the pet parent and their lifestyle aspirations ahead of what’s going on in the formulation, the manufacturing and the supply of high-quality food ingredients. Yet the enemy in here is the very sameness this encourages.

  • When you can walk through the store aisles and literally transfer packaging statements from one brand to the next one over, and it remains essentially valid, you know the playing field is going to be murky for the consumer. Maybe even confusing.

Breaking the cycle requires putting pet parents at the center of planning and working backwards from there. It is the focus on them, their lives, interests and relationship with their pet where all the alchemy of marketing magic happens.

Great marketing isn’t logical and linear. It is better when the plan embraces the idea that humans are emotional and often irrational, driven by whims and the perceived wisdom of crowds.

Love in a bowl.

That’s right, love. You aren’t selling pet food or de-boned chicken or 38% protein. You are selling the means to express the great love people have for their pet. Emotional communication occurs when storytelling and images and focus are on the pet parent ahead of the product. Holding up a mirror on what they believe: “I’m spending more on pet food because I care deeply about the health and wellbeing of my four-legged family member.”

So celebrate the bond, the moments of happiness, the relationship, the companionship, the emotional connections and experiences of a life lived alongside furry children. In this way the pet parent immediately becomes the hero of brand storytelling, and in doing so the communication achieves its goal of being wanted and engaging.

Talk about the stories of your customer’s pet lifestyle experiences, triumph over health challenges, and the miraculous emotional connections people have received during one of the most uncertain periods in human history. When your marketing voice is a reflection of real world experiences and the value pet parents experience with their pets, your brand becomes a partner with them on their journey to a more fulfilling life with their pet companion.

  • This is how brand relationships are formed and fed. All of a sudden it matters less to  communication effectiveness when protein percentages vary slightly brand to brand. You are no longer chained to specsmanship. You have successfully disrupted the sea of sameness.

Should this kind of thinking inspire you to consider fresh ideas and approaches, please use this link and let’s start a conversation.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to the Emerging Trends Report.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact Bob@Emergent-Comm.com and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

Pet parent bond drives pet food category growth

Pet Food Industry Resilience in Face of Pandemic and Change

July 8th, 2020 Posted by brand marketing, brand messaging, Brand preference, brand strategy, change, consumer behavior, Higher Purpose, Pet care, Pet food, Pet food marketing, Pet nutrition 0 comments on “Pet Food Industry Resilience in Face of Pandemic and Change”

Pets in catbird seat of household spending priority

By Robert Wheatley

While the earth-shaking intensity of COVID-19 and a global pandemic has upended lives, businesses and careers, it has elevated the importance of family pets as important companions in a rocky and uncertain life journey. Witness the stampede to shelters and pet rescue centers as people have swept up stray dogs and cats to join the family during stay-at-home orders.

Even now the pet industry is forecasted to grow by 4 to 7% this year despite lock downs and recessionary trends. Pet food is a strong, maybe recession-proof, business that is likely to retain its momentum for the very reason pets are meaningful players in the health and wellbeing, and possibly sanity, of their owners.

The marketing game plan for pet brands may shift towards the emotional dynamic of the human/animal bond more so than nutritional specsmanship, a fact-based common feature of brand communication during the last 10 years. Now more than ever, there is a concerted need for insight and understanding of how pet parent attitudes and needs are changing as a result of the pandemic.

History shows pet food to be a unique industry forever grounded in a growing, visceral enthusiasm for furry creatures who over time have moved from the barnyard to the backyard, to the living room and now are often found at night in the bedroom cozying up with their owners. The genesis story of this cultural evolution is fascinating and was set in motion by an unexpected world-class crisis event.

Who is making the pet food?

It was 2007 when the pet food world was turned on its head, disrupted and capsized with news of surging pet fatalities traced to tainted Melamine ingredients from China. Remarkably, it wasn’t the poisoned food or pet deaths that caused a complete industry shake-up. As the crisis unfolded, media working to trace the Melamine source determined that one company in Canada, Menu Foods, was manufacturing more than 100 different brands of pet food.

Instantly the tens of millions spent in brand advertising and equity building for some of the largest industry players was rendered inert. Brand reputations, constructed on years of claims about carefully formulated, created foods, were upended as the perceptions of food-making craftsmanship took the torpedo of outsourced – and apparently unsafe – production.

Almost immediately web sites sprang up around the “truth about pet food” as attention turned to deconstructing what exactly was inside the little brown nugget known as kibble. The largest and most popular foods were primarily grain-based products, a relatively inexpensive ingredient that flew against the marketing imagery of meat being the top nutritional anchor.

A new theme emerged as smaller boutique pet food brands making higher-quality pet foods suddenly got their day in the sun. Pet parents everywhere learned that dogs and cats are primarily carnivores, and their ancestral diets were closely linked to consumption of meat and fish proteins.

The definition of a high-quality pet food was restaged to a new recipe paradigm. The idea of ‘dogs-descended-from-wolves’ made intuitive sense to consumers as they resonated to the idea that pets aren’t grain (corn) eaters.

Dawn of the grain-free juggernaut

Sales of emerging premium brands like Wellness, Nature’s Variety, Merrick and Champion Petfoods’ Orijen brand shot up as pet parents began to upgrade the food they served to Fido. They started to pay closer attention to product labels, ingredient statements and sources. Orijen became the first brand to telegraph the percentage of meat protein in their formulation, under the story that more meat protein was indeed better and compatible with the nutritional needs and eating anatomy of dogs and cats.

The race was on to embrace grain-free as a category with marketing activity now devoted to focus on higher quality and so-called ‘human grade’ meat, poultry and fish ingredients inside the bag. Driving the grain-free momentum was a continued premiumization of the entire pet food industry. Pets were increasingly valued family members and food quality emerged as a symbol of investing in the health and wellness of four-legged, furry children – mirroring the healthy eating trend at the human dinner table.

As a business segment, grain-free pet foods emerged as the top volume growth producer at retail. Not lost on brands in every segment of the market, most companies joined the rush to create their versions of grain-free foods given the nomenclature had become a reference standard for healthier diet.

As evidence mounted that growth was to be had in the grain-free segment, Petco became the first big box retailer to fully re-set their stores, shifting prime in-store real estate to featuring the growing high quality brand players, while mass brands were pushed to the back of the shelving bus.

Investment followed to play in the quality end of the pool

The volume business ‘cheese’ was moving in pet food and naturally, investment followed as equity capital got involved among emerging brands such as the Catterton Partners acquisition of raw food category leader Nature’s Variety.

Large cap strategic players made their moves when grain-free superstar Blue Buffalo was snapped up by General Mills; JM Smucker bought Big Heart Brands gaining the Natural Balance business in the deal; and Nestlé landed Merrick Petcare to operate alongside their established Purina Petcare business. Testimony to the vast changes in consumer behavior and brand preference, Proctor & Gamble got out of the pet food business entirely, selling their limping Iams business to Mars Petcare, makers of Pedigree.

Super premium pet foods were once the exclusive province of independent pet retail. However, premiumization trends are now impacting the channel traditions as higher-quality brands show up in mass and grocery retail to meet the demand for better quality pet foods. There’s ample evidence that consumers are undeterred at higher average price points. General Mills made quick moves to use their clout in moving Blue Buffalo to supermarkets. While the Blue Buffalo business has suffered declines as independent retailers reacted negatively to the channel move, the grocery volume has more than offset the losses. Pet food has become a balance sheet darling for General Mills to tout during their quarterly reports to the Street.

Growth of pet food sales in e-commerce has been nothing short of phenomenal as people cut down on shopping trips and show interest in no-contact purchasing via online stores like Chewy and Amazon. Industry watchers anticipate there will be more consolidation as pet food continues to show its resilience in an otherwise shaky business and retail environment.

What lies ahead in pet

One key area of vulnerability in pet food is supply chain as the meat processing industry was felled by hyper-spreading of the virus in employee-packed plants. Stability in the sourcing of protein ingredients will be vital to industry health in the coming months.

On another front, in July 2018 the industry was upset by a report from the FDA that implicated grain- free foods as a potential contributor to Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM), a potentially fatal heart disease in dogs associated with low Taurine intake, an important amino acid. The FDA felt persuaded to list brands that were under review in their research, and the media firestorm around it created a wave of consumer and veterinary concerns about safety and which foods could be served with confidence.

The industry responded first by working collaboratively with the FDA on their investigation, while also creating new “wholesome or ancient grain” versions of their foods for pet parents who wanted the option. More recently, peer-reviewed research from third-party sources has been published that concludes the onset of DCM conditions is not diet related but mostly hereditary.

While many brands have experienced real setbacks in their grain-free business, it is expected the new information on DCM, as it works its way to consumers and retailers, will help restore confidence and close the chapter on safety concerns.

Marveling at the human/animal bond

With pets front and center, playing an important role in family life while people spend more time at home, it will be interesting to observe if pet brands make the emotional relationship a centerpiece of their marketing efforts. More insight research is needed to understand the nuances of this significant pet / pet parent relationship and how it has changed during the pandemic.

Alvarez & Marsal, along with partners Emergent Healthy Living brand marketing firm, Brand Experience Group  (BXG) insight research company, and Starcount social media listening agency, are approaching legacy and emerging pet brands with an insight proposal.

The pandemic research project combines quantitative and qualitative methodologies to discover the changes delivered by COVID 19 to pet parent attitudes, concerns and purchase behaviors. It is the intent of the research to reveal a new understanding of where the pet food business should navigate over the coming months and the next few years.

For more information on the project, contact Wes Arens at Alvarez & Marsal, warens@alvarezandmarsal.com or Mike Bambrick at BXG, mbambrick@brandexperience-group.com.

About the author: Robert Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Emergent helps CPG, retail and lifestyle brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and brand communication. For more details on Emergent’s pet care experience and credentials, click here to view or download an overview.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to the Emerging Trends Report.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact Bob@Emergent-Comm.com and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

Pet Industry Experts Forecast Future

May 14th, 2020 Posted by brand marketing, brand strategy, change, Consumer insight, Digital marketing, e-commerce, Pet care, Pet food, Pet food marketing, shopper behavior 0 comments on “Pet Industry Experts Forecast Future”

Recession-proof category, but winners and losers

You probably sat down this morning at your kitchen-table-home-office, like every morning nowadays, looking at the screen in front of you like it’s a crystal ball. You’re hoping to conjure certainty in the face of little and gaze at a future with well-defined outcomes and assurances. This can be hard to come by. On occasion it helps to have some of the most experienced minds in your industry offer perspective.

Emergent asked four leading voices in the pet care business to weigh in on current conditions and provide their observations on where the business is headed for the balance of 2020. Helpful news ahead – we summarize the key takeaways at the end of this article.

Despite the economic chaos and roller-coaster conditions at retail, one thing remains steadfast and true – people assign a higher pocketbook priority to furry family members.

The headline: despite the pandemic impact on businesses generally, pet food remains on a trajectory to finish the year ahead of 2019. That said, there will be winners and losers in the battle to come. Retailers and pet parents will remember those brands which were there for them, that communicated to build trust, supported them and remained present – and those which didn’t.

Out of sight is out of mind and some brands have gone underground in the last two months, creating an open invitation for more progressive players to step in and take share. As you plan for what lies ahead, here are assessments and recommendations from experts the industry relies on for guidance.

Participating in this report are:

Mark Kalaygian, Editor-in-Chief, Pet Business

Lindsay Beaton, Editor, Petfood Industry

Glenn Polyn, Editor-in-Chief, Pet Age

Jennifer Semple, Editor, Pet Food Processing

It’s a time of uncertainty and contradictions

  1. Pet brands are trying to navigate uncertainty in the supply chain (meat packing plant closures) on one side and retail sell-through on the other. What’s your best take on the state of the industry’s health and what do you foresee happening in the next six months?

Mark Kalaygian: “Based on what I’m seeing, the industry is quite healthy. All reports are that the supply chain is holding up nicely, with minimal, isolated disruptions caused by logistical issues, as opposed to production problems.” While e-commerce has picked up momentum, “I believe when stay-at-home orders relax, traditional shopping patterns will return,” he reports. “That said emphasis on omni-channel strategies are important when people have a more limited number of shopping excursions.”

Lindsay Beaton: “While stay-at-home orders and social distance concerns may have prevented some people from getting to physical stores, e-commerce saw 77% growth in March as people stockpiled. However choppy sales conditions may continue for the rest of the year.  My gut is pet food companies should look at their e-comm strategies not just for now but as a new standard for doing business.”

Glenn Polyn: “Pet brands are in a good place, all things considered. Any who may be under duress were probably struggling before the pandemic happened.” The grain-free segment, one of the industry’s strongest categories over the last decade, took a sales hit following DCM-related media reports. “Those who were already more impacted by a DCM (grain-free) slow-down may be experiencing added pressures,” he said.

Jennifer Semple: “Pet food is typically a recession-proof industry and is expected to remain one. Package Facts is still projecting 4% growth for the year.” Knowing the importance of impulse buying to some more discretionary categories at retail, “treat sales may well be soft until consumers have a comfort level to go out and shop at the store,” she said.

  1. On the one hand we have evidence that the value proposition for pet ownership is at an all-time high and pet rescue and shelters are seeing a surge in adoptions, yet we’re also observing evidence of balance sheet strain such as some retailers cutting headcount and reducing employee hours. What do you think is impacting the conditions between growing enthusiasm for pets in the home and pet food category fiscal health?

Mark Kalaygian: “The high levels of quality time people are spending with pets, and new ones in the household, could lead to a trade up in food quality to brands carried (mostly) at independents.” Right now, FDM (Food Drug Mass) channels are experiencing a lot of traffic based on consumer response to stay-at-home orders, “there is SKU overlap between big box chain (Petco, etc.) and FDM channel that could create some erosion for big box if FDM shopping patterns persist. We saw a similar dynamic play out during the ‘08/’09 recession. We think food sales will remain strong. However, it will be (increasingly) important to optimize channel strategy,” he explained.

Lindsay Beaton: “It’s true that animal shelters all over the U.S. are seeing adoptions and fosters in numbers they’ve possibly never seen before. Many shelters had to reduce staff or shut down entirely to protect their human workers and volunteers when the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading. The best way to look after their animals was to get them into private homes. With employees suddenly telecommuting or with reduced work hours, communities responded heartily. At the same time, these (temporary or otherwise) pet owners were unable to get to physical stores to take care of their new furry companions. The current conditions have served to speed up an already-occurring migration to online channels.”

Glenn Polyn: “The retailers I have spoken to tell me that their sales are on a roller coaster ride that changes daily. One day there might be a huge wave of customers clearing the shelves only to be followed by the slowest of days with hardly any sales. Some retailers may be cutting staff, and that’s to be expected as customers are mostly going to be seeking necessities. And the fact that pet owners aren’t always walking up and down aisles means they aren’t going to be impulse buying. Considering the pandemic is such a unique event, the wave of adoptions might not be permanent once the nation returns back to some semblance of normalcy.”

Jennifer Semple: “Boston Consulting and IRI reported a surge in pet food sales during March, likely due to panic buying, and followed by a dip. Pet ownership levels are strong but many of the opportunities for impulse purchasing and trying new pet foods and treats are suppressed right now without as many people browsing in physical stores. As communities open up, the drive to feed, nurture and pamper pets will help revitalize the industry. In the near term I expect pet brands will focus on their best sellers, while tracking how consumers are spending.”

  1. What is your best advice to pet food companies working to optimize their plans and navigate current market uncertainty? If you were CEO, what are the top three moves you would make?

Mark Kalaygian: “Going forward, a strong, clear channel strategy is in order in light of e-commerce growth. Independent pet specialty retailers were already paying close attention to how pet food companies were balancing their approach to omni-channel sales before the pandemic struck, and that is only going to increase in the months ahead.

“If I were running a pet food business I would focus on the following: Make sure the supply chain is consistent and working across all retail segments and partners, and not just the larger accounts. No independent pet retailer wants to deal with product shortages while a bigger competitor down the street enjoys high fill rates.

“With a fair amount of overlap already I would consider how to create uniqueness and distinctiveness for brands in independent vs. big box channels.

“Given the growth and shift to e-commerce shopping I would make an added effort to help independents compete more effectively with online specialists.”

Lindsay Beaton: “According to a recent PFI survey, only 11.9% of pet food manufacturers cited ingredient shortages or inconsistent supply as a top challenge. That said it’s better to be prepared with multiple options should any supplier conditions change.

“If I were a pet brand CEO, I would pay attention to:

“Anyone who was already set up for e-commerce had a significant leg up when the pandemic hit and everyone started staying at (and shopping from) home. Now a much larger portion of the pet-owning population has come to understand their e-tail options. Subscription purchasing surged 28% in March.

“It seems wise for pet brands to either be doing business on the larger e-comm platforms or helping specialty retailers make sure their e-commerce platforms are robust and marketed well.

“According to market surveys, by and large consumers are pleased with the way their brands of choice are handling the COVID-19 situation and want to continue hearing from them. When people head online it also means they are doing research there, checking influencer sites, reading product reviews, browsing social channels so it’s important to have your marketing house in order.”

Glenn Polyn: “Communication is vital. CEOs need to ensure the brand message is getting across to both pet owners and to retailers. On the one hand, you want to help consumers realize their pet lifestyle goals to keep pets happy and healthy, and perhaps share their stories on social media channels. Not to be overlooked, now is also the time to create well-written, engaging, interesting stories that help retailers and distributors understand how the company values (and understands) their efforts and how their concerns and needs are being supported.”

Jennifer Semple: “If I were making the calls at a pet food company, I would communicate, communicate, communicate. I would frequently talk to distribution partners, retail owners, competitors and friends in the business to gauge what is resonating with customers, what the customer concerns are, how their purchasing habits are evolving, and I would optimize my processing efforts to better serve what I’m seeing in the market.

“I would also look to diversify to meet another product need, serve another distribution or sales channel, or identify how I could help another company serve their customers better by manufacturing for them.

“Another priority would be to rally the troops within the company. Be open with where the company currently stands, what the immediate priorities are and what the near-term and long-term goals are. I would provide avenues to receive input and ideas from all corners of the company to identify the clearest, most direct path to growth and opportunity. I think many companies are successful because they create a culture of ‘we’re all in this together’ and from that culture gain a better understanding of the company’s true strengths and opportunities.”

Optimism if the right moves are made

It’s cathartic to hear the words and passion coming from those who so closely follow the pet care industry and by virtue of their occupation, have routine detailed conversations with the leaders of many businesses both big and small. Anytime you see the words ‘recession proof’ in a sentence it brings a measure of confidence.

But the challenges nonetheless are steep and varied. Some brands will come out ahead and some will lose ground despite the forecasts. The reason is straightforward: uncertainty can sponsor a form of organizational retreat and withdrawal. While understandable, that condition helps create a self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat. It requires a measure of business moxie to stand in the breach and operate progressively.

Yet that is our call to action to the leaders who read this report. Here, in sum, is the counsel of your pet food prophets:

  • The business remains generally in good condition despite a faltering economy.
  • Communication is a resounding call to action and was repeated over and over for the very reason the experts have taken note of a retreat to silence. Not every story or word needs to be treated like a CIA top security file disclosure. Talking to customers and pet parents is necessary, important and will be rewarded.
  • In a related insight, keep the intel investments going to assess how consumer attitudes and behaviors are shifting within this new cultural minefield they’re living in. To truly know them and their aspirations and concerns is the secret sauce for more effective marketing investments and messaging strategies.
  • Segments of the business driven largely by impulse buying will indeed take a hit until store browsing fully returns.
  • E-commerce is big and getting bigger, and likely to remain an important channel long after the pandemic recedes, so best to map strategy now.
  • When assets are tight and every dollar needs to work like 10, focus on your best sellers and prioritize.
  • Pay attention to supply chain conditions and make sure you have strategies in place should a healthy “Plan B” be required for continuity purposes.

It is important to know that as much as experts see some insulation for the pet food business given the out-sized priority families assign to pets, multiplied by their growing value in a chaotic, less secure world, it is the actions leaders take now that will inform the business outcome later.

Your true north is operating in service of retailer and pet parent needs, aspirations and the health and wellness of pets. Being mindful of consumer concerns and needs can help shape the one thing our experts repeated most often: communicate, communicate, communicate.

Editorial note: Emergent would like to express our heartfelt thanks to each of the editors who participated in this story. We appreciate your time and efforts to help inform the industry.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to the Emerging Trends Report.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact Bob@Emergent-Comm.com and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

Emergent Forecast: Continued Growth for Pet Food

April 8th, 2020 Posted by brand marketing, CMO, Pet care, Pet food, Pet food marketing 0 comments on “Emergent Forecast: Continued Growth for Pet Food”

Pets integral to health and wellness, will drive the business

For several weeks we have predicted resilience for the pet food segment, and that is borne out in recent sales performance reports from Nielsen. Dog food was up 37.5% year over year for the week ending March 14, and up 54.7% for the week ending March 31.

While this may be attributed to some stocking up (and even hoarding) behaviors in and around the stay-at-home restrictions, the overall forecast for the remainder of 2020 continues to show modest growth, now projected at 4% for the pet food segment for the year, according to Packaged Facts.

Long term, the pet food business will not only weather the storm but will continue to grow despite the economic conditions impacting other business segments. Unlike the Great Recession of 2008 and ’09, the pandemic is a different threat, one that has served to greatly enhance the value proposition of pet ownership.

In a related story, Emergent has tracked a variety of reports from around the country showing pet adoptions are increasing as mandated stay-at-home conditions continue to favor the presence of dogs and cats in the household.

Human and pet food trends are intertwined

As many in the pet industry already know, the relationship between human food business trends and pet food are extremely close. According to a recent report from The Hartman Group on consumer response to COVID-19, stress and anxiety management have risen to the top as the fundamental driver for self-directed efforts to manage health and wellness.

Consumers are laser focused on developing ‘nurturing habits’ to help them feel well. Conversations about mental health have been de-stigmatized in recent years and consumers believe their wellbeing is tied not only to physical exercise and better eating, but also to their ability to manage stress in their lives.

Dogs and cats are known stress-reducers. Hartman goes on to report an uptick in physical activities among home-bound households, as people work to resolve their growing needs for physical and mental wellbeing. Dogs, especially, are part of this regimen as anecdotal reports continue to escalate about increased frequency for dog walking and outdoor activities involving them.

Emergent believes these trends form the basis of resilience for pet food, even as other sectors in pet care, including Veterinary services and pet boarding, face increasing headwinds.

Pet Food Processing survey underscores continued growth

A recent survey conducted by Pet Food Processing reports 63% of pet food manufacturers have seen an increase in demand fueled by novel coronavirus conditions.

Other relevant data useful for planning:

57% of pet food brands are seeing growth in the e-commerce channel, and 30% say distributor sales are up.

25% are experiencing growth in grocery, supercenter and club channels.

73% are reporting no current declines in any channel.

28% have reported no material changes in their business results.

20% have experienced disruptions in the supply chain, an area of vulnerability.

Rigid demand supported by value surge

Now is not the time for pet brands to go dark in the midst of economic uncertainty. Dogs and cats own a unique and special position in the home that will continue to elevate their value as part of the household budget. History shows repeatedly that brands which continue to invest in times of economic challenge show comparative growth and increased share of market, as a reward for their perseverance.

  • Rather than focus on protein percentage wars that have been a familiar refrain for some time in pet food marketing, Emergent recommend brands become more focused on pet lifestyle relevance and the incredibly important bond between pets and their parents.

The pandemic has served as an ultimate reminder to people about why their pets matter and how much they derive personally from the relationship. Scientific studies that for decades have shown a positive relationship between pet ownership and the physical health and wellbeing of owners, is getting the biggest global real-world test in the history of the industry.

While the year on year growth will be more conservative than previously forecasted (pre-pandemic), it is nonetheless a viable condition to manage, unlike other businesses now struggling with relevance and priority.

We anticipate the demand for pet food to remain steadfast based on the growing evidence that pet ownership is irrevocably tied to human wellbeing.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to the Emerging Trends Report.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact Bob@Emergent-Comm.com and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

Building Trust in the Midst of Fear

March 15th, 2020 Posted by Brand preference, brand strategy, change, Consumer insight, Emotional relevance, food experiences, food retail strategy, Food Trend, Higher Purpose, Human behavior, Navigation, Pet food, Restaurant trends, Social community, Social media, Transformation 1 comment on “Building Trust in the Midst of Fear”

Efforts to create, innovate and communicate will inform your brand’s future

You’ve undoubtedly run across the ‘dystopian future’ movie storyline, usually brought on by some cataclysmic disaster with intrepid or hysterical survivors running into a grocery store, only to be greeted by empty shelves while wading through torn packaging detritus everywhere. I had this movie-like experience only last night at the Mariano’s supermarket nearby. I witnessed the fear-driven cart Olympics mad dash as aisle after aisle of products were emptied save a lone, bruised apple and a dented, torn box of cereal left dangling precariously on an otherwise barren shelf.

Uncertainty and media drama are partners in the perceptual stew that pushes people into behaviors normally reserved for cinematic storytelling. Fear of the unknown grips as the house now achieves safe haven sanctuary status and toilet paper becomes one of the most elusive, rare and sought-after commodities in the nation.

Keep Calm and Carry On

In 1940 at the height of the Blitzkrieg (The Blitz) that showered Great Britain with bombs in the night, dropped indiscriminately on London neighborhoods, the government released its now famous poster Keep Calm and Carry On. This statement became a dominant theme embraced by incredibly brave British citizens in the face of unrelenting catastrophe and sharpened their resolve to weather the life-threatening storm.

Right now, today, you have an opportunity to help your customers Keep Calm and discover the opportunities presented by a large dose of enforced family time and homebound adventures and experiences. Creative, innovative thinking and generous outreach is the required skillset.

Lemonade from lemons

The foodservice industry is taking it on the chin. In Seattle, the hardest hit city in the nation from COVID-19, business has virtually disappeared from restaurants as people remain home. Arguably Seattle’s finest dining establishment, Canlis, an iconic example of culinary quality that has led the dining scene there for decades, elected to close.

Chef-owner Tom Douglas told Restaurant Business magazine revenue was off by 90%, which might as well be 100%. Nonetheless, Douglas’ response was instructive to us all. He announced the opening of three concepts based out of Canlis kitchens that will serve the takeout, drive through and home delivery market segments. The Bagel Shed will offer breakfast options; Drive on Thru will provide lunchtime burgers, veggie melts and salad; Family Meal will offer a rotating menu of dinner entrees and a bottle of wine delivered to your door. A creative deployment of solutions and assets that helps keep the team employed while answering the opportunity for off-premise consumption business.

Salve for Uncertainty

Communication, and lots of it, is required in these unprecedented times. Your motivation is not only to inform users of what your business is doing to keep the flow of goods and services they need safely in motion, but also to express care and concern for their health, wellbeing and happiness.

The schools my daughters attend are now closed. My youngest is a dancer, and her classes and performances have been cancelled. My oldest is an ice skater and the rink is shut and practices stopped. What we have going is each other, our wonderful dogs, more time together and adventurous spirits.

How can your brand operate as coach and guide for family activities, more hands-on experiences with the pets, and a renewed focus on home-prepared meals? With no sports, no concerts, no large group events of any kind, the marketplace may well be listening and consumers more open to engagement than ever before. There are certainly wayyy fewer distractions competing for precious attention.

Your brand’s ability to operate as an enabler and resource is important in this environment. Social communities can become outlets of shared experience. In Chicago, the Nextdoor online community bulletin board is on fire as people share thoughts, ideas and concerns on the changes occurring before us. One of the most active conversations is around the status of fresh food supplies in local supermarkets and guidance on who has what.

People want to share and engage with each other

We have arrived at a new era where businesses increasingly understand they are about more than manufacturing, retailing and commerce. Companies have discovered their growing role in authoring the greater good. This self-discovery opens the door to building a more human and approachable brand that understands relationships with users are increasingly like real, human friendships and the natural reciprocity that exists in that personal dynamic.

When brands talk, walk and behave in a more human and relate-able manner, they become more resonant and trustworthy. You have been handed an extraordinary opportunity to help people in the midst of a trying storm. Empathy is a great characteristic and will serve you well as people embrace your voice of reason and support.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to the Emerging Trends Report.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact Bob@Emergent-Comm.com and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

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