Pets used to be easy. They’d sit in a small wooden house in the yard, eat dry food from a bag, and entertain your kids. But as the world grows more complicated, so do our relationships with our furry friends. Most young pet owners would reject the concept of “ownership.” Millennials have become pet parents. Fido and Whiskers are no longer seen as property, now they’re beloved members of the family. Instead of digging holes in the yard, they’re flaunting designer fashions on Instagram. Their physical and emotional development is agonized over by worried mothers. No sum of money could put a price on their health and well-being. And nowhere is the shift in views of pet ownership more apparent than the pet food industry.
A recent study by a French pet food manufacturer found that 62% of cat owners and 56% of dog owners reported that finding the right food was the most stressful and difficult part of caring for pets. Over 80% of respondents in both groups rated high quality or health benefits as the most important factor in choosing the right food. The study also found that, while mass-market retailers remained the most popular place to purchase pet food, online channels had surpassed pet specialty stores for second place, with the broad range of specialty food on offer.
One of the most surprising parts of the study was the fact that young, modern pet parents are increasingly mistrustful of established authorities. Many reported that they were mistrustful of major brands and their claims of ecological sustainability and nutritional benefits. They also reported a growing skepticism to veterinarian-recommended products, with many choosing to research pet nutrition on their own. The growing mistrust of vets is an interesting trend to observe as Wal-Mart prepares to launch an in-store and online veterinary service in 100 outlets this year.
How Pet Parents Are Changing The Pet Food Industry
Stroll down the pet food aisle at your local supermarket and you’ll see one of the biggest changes pet parents have wrought: grains are gone! Grain-free has been a buzzword throughout the industry, with many influential experts and bloggers claiming that the presence of grains creates a host of health problems for our beloved animals, including allergic reactions and digestive problems. As Scratch, an online Australian pet food manufacturer notes, many pet owners see improvements to a dog’s skin, coat, digestion, and overall energy levels after switching to grain-free food.
However, the choice isn’t as simple as it appears. While one would assume that grain-free would mean the food contains more protein, fat, and vitamins, many cost-conscious manufacturers simply replace grains with other refined carbohydrates such as potato starch or tapioca starch. And grain-free foods have also been associated with a heart disorder, dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), which has led to the deaths of over 500 American dogs. The disorder is caused by a lack of taurine, an amino acid present in meat and certain grains which is absent in the peas, lentils, and other sources of plant protein which are generally the primary ingredients in grain-free pet food.
People have been following nutritional trends for years, from Nutrasweet to kombucha. As we begin to treat our pets as people, we are forcing Fido to follow the advice we get from friends, airport books, and the internet. This may result in improving the health of our companions, but it can also have unintended consequences, and we’d advise caution and due diligence before dramatically changing pet diets.
eCommerce, Direct To Consumer, and Subscriptions
Online sales have enabled small start-ups offering high-end, specialized products to capture significant market share. Companies like Farmer’s Dog and Pet Plate have used blogs and influencer marketing to convert customers from kibbles to “human-grade” dog food. As Farmer’s Dog CEO Jonathan Regev told AdWeek, DTC means that the brand “doesn’t compromise its food quality, like it would in a traditional retail setting or pre-social media.” Instead of making cheap dog food for everyone, these companies can now reach everyone who wants the highest quality product available.
Blue Buffalo is emblematic of the changes shaking up the pet food industry. The brand was started by the Bishop family, as a response to the death of Blue, a family pet who died from a succession of intestinal tumors and cancers. His passing inspired the family to conclude that healthier food would have extended his life and that they and many others would be willing to spend whatever it took to keep their beloved creatures healthy. The company has quickly become America’s leading manufacturer of specialty pet food and was purchased by General Mills for a whopping $8 billion last year. The move gives General Mills an established brand in a sector primed for growth and allows the smaller brand an opportunity to develop new products and sales platforms. While this move didn’t attract the attention that Amazon’s launch of the Wag pet food line did, it is further illustration that leading brands and retailers sense a massive opportunity in the pet food industry.
Amazon, General Mills, and others have realized that pet food is the perfect product for online replenishment. Brands and retailers know that if they can use established online platforms to attract customers to subscriptions, voice replenishment, and regular deliveries, they’ll have years, even decades, of loyalty. Because demand is regular, the product itself is heavy and bulky, and online retailers are capable of offering a wider range of products, the future of the industry appears to lie online. And for established brands looking to stay competitive, the time to adapt your marketing and eCommerce strategies to eCommerce has come! Finding a way to remove friction from the replenishment process, adopting stylish and shoppable packaging solutions, and converting your existing customers to your own digital sales platforms will be a must if you’re hoping to compete with the titans of the industry looking to crush the competition in the pet food space.