Since joining Nature’s Variety in 2006, CEO Reed Howlett has used his background in the ice cream industry to work with distributors and retailers on attractively presenting and maintaining the quality of frozen products, such as the company’s raw diets.
Though Nature’s Variety focuses on growing all its brands and formats, it sees the most growth potential and is very passionate about its raw foods, both frozen and freeze-dried, under the Instinct brand.
A brand should have a purpose, a reason for being, says Erin Mulligan Nelson, VP/chief marketing officer for Dell computers, in an article for Advertising Age. “It should make a difference in the world in some way.”
Perhaps no other company has embraced that philosophy more than Nature’s Variety. “We spent a lot of time over the last 15-18 months examining our purpose: Why are we here as a company?” explains Reed Howlett, CEO since July 2008. “Obviously, we need to grow, we need to provide a return to our shareholders, but that’s not the main purpose behind why people are here and why they come to work every day excited about what they do. It’s because they work in an industry they’re passionate about, and we felt it was really important to articulate what it is about our company that unlocks that passion.”
What is that key? Nature’s Variety’s purpose is to empower people to transform the lives of pets. And the many initiatives the company has undertaken over the past 12-plus months have happened with an “eye toward bringing that to life,” Howlett says.
That includes extensive consumer research that has driven changes such as new products, new packaging and positioning for its brands, new safety processes and scientific research on raw petfood, the category Nature’s Variety is best known for. Its products in that segment include frozen and freeze-dried raw, both under the Instinct brand, as well as Raw Frozen Bones.
While the company is focused on continuing double-digit growth rates for all its products—which also include Instinct grain- and gluten-free dry and wet foods and biscuits, natural dry and wet foods under the Prairie brand, SweetSpots frozen treats and Slow Roasted Treats—Howlett believes much of the growth will be driven by the raw category.
“There’s no place we feel more passionate about pursuing growth because of our purpose than through raw, because it delivers every day in such meaningful ways,” Howlett says. “The testimonials we receive that back that up, the recommendations that consumers make to one another, what we see on social media like Facebook—it’s really compelling.
“As the leader in that category, I think we’ve got unique responsibilities to grow it,” he adds. Taking a leadership position means “the way we do research, the way we help educate around that category, the way we innovate around it.”
To that end, Nature’s Variety partners with the University of Nebraska’s Food Sciences Department near the company’s plant in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA. The university has also helped with the company’s quality assurance program, base research on safety technology and nutritional training for field sales and demonstration staff, who educate retailers and consumers about raw and Nature’s Variety products.
At Global Pet Expo in March, Nature’s Variety presented a recent study by Kelly Swanson, PhD, and his team at the University of Illinois Department of Animal Sciences on the palatability, digestibility and safety of raw dog food. “As we relaunched our raw business under the Instinct brand name, we wanted to be able to talk about raw from more of a fact-based standpoint about why it delivers nutritionally on the promises we make,” Howlett says.
Another factor that sets Nature’s Variety apart from its competition is its rotational philosophy: “We believe feeding a variety of foods overall supports an animal’s health and rotating different types of proteins and forms is very beneficial to the pet,” Howlett explains. “We recognize not all consumers can feed raw all the time. So our philosophy is it’s OK to mix dry with raw, and whether that’s in the same bowl or as separate meals, we formulate our foods in a way that encourages consumers to do that.
“When we think about how our brands are positioned for growth and we look toward our purpose,” he adds, “yes, raw is definitely the tip of the spear, but this overall rotational philosophy is a very important part of the message we’re sending to retailers and consumers.”
Howlett believes education is crucial. “Our greatest challenge is educating consumers and pet nutrition experts, including vets, on the benefits and safety of feeding a raw diet. I think that’s the key to unlocking the growth, having consumers view the product as safe and convenient.”
Earlier this year Nature’s Variety issued a voluntary recall of some of its raw frozen diets because of potential Salmonella contamination. As a result, the company expanded its use of high pressure pasteurization (HPP), a process that kills pathogenic bacteria, which it had begun applying to its freeze-dried raw products in November 2009. “When we had this issue come up, we were fully prepared to put HPP in place for all our raw products; we had done all the research about its effect on palatability and nutritional value, and we became very comfortable with HPP in both regards,” Howlett says.
After undergoing the HPP step, all the raw diets are held while they’re tested to ensure no pathogenic bacteria remain. Nature’s Variety also employs a complete HACCP protocol and other GMPs, according to Howlett.
“As I think about the development of the industry, at least our part of the industry, I see boundless opportunity,” Howlett says. “I absolutely see nutritional education as the biggest opportunity to catalyze even more rapid growth in independent pet specialty.
“As we talk to pet parents who have become educated and seen a transformation from feeding a higher-quality food, they’re just so excited,” Howlett continues. “There are so many products in this world that don’t deliver on their promise that when you see foods like ours and others that do, that’s something consumers just stand up and take notice of.”
Headquarters: St. Louis, Missouri, USA
Officers: Reed Howlett, CEO; Aaron Grimm, CFO/VP of supply chain; Stephanie Arnold, VP of sales; Steve Carstensen, VP of operations; Ed O’Neill, senior director of technical services/quality; Laura Duclos, PhD, director of R&D
Sales: Privately owned company does not divulge sales; double-digit growth in 2010
Brands: Instinct (raw and grain-free dog and cat food, plus biscuits); Prairie (natural dog and cat food); Sweet Spots, Raw Frozen Bones and Slow Roasted Treats (all dog treats)
Distribution: Pet specialty stores and veterinary clinics in the US and Canada
Facilities: Headquarters and administrative offices in St. Louis; plant and warehouse in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA
In her Advertising Age article, “Why your brand should have a purpose,” Erin Mulligan Nelson, VP/chief marketing officer for Dell computers, uses Southwest Airlines as an example of a company with a strong purpose behind its brand.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in deciding on its purpose, Nature’s Variety also looked to Southwest. “They’ve really done a great job of exciting their people about providing a service that empowers people to fly through making it affordable and convenient,” says Reed Howlett, Nature’s Variety CEO. “And that’s a company we use a lot as we travel so we know them pretty well. In developing our purpose, we used our own experience with the Southwest brand to help educate ourselves about what an effective purpose is.
“A purpose is a very useful thing in empowering people to make sure their voices are heard and giving them guideposts to help make decisions no matter what role they play in the company,” Howlett explains, adding that it also helps with decisions in areas such as formulation and pricing. “Those can be thorny topics, and our purpose guides us through that decision-making process in a really effective way. Often the answer becomes quite obvious when you frame the question through that purpose.”
Howlett says Nature’s Variety’s purpose helps with implementing the company’s strategy. “The purpose underlies our participation in the raw category, it underlies our rotational philosophy, it’s furthered through the education of our employees, the training we do with retail associates in the stores and the veterinary community and through the research we do, both product based from an R&D standpoint and market research as we decide the best way to present our brand to the consumer.”
Social media: powerful stuff
While most manufacturers in the natural and holistic petfood category don’t have the financial means to launch large advertising campaigns, today they have digital and social media, says Reed Howlett, CEO of Nature’s Variety. “It’s a powerful enabler to help this industry grow even more rapidly, because there are so many low-cost ways for us to get the message out now.”
Nature’s Variety has nearly 3,500 fans on Facebook and almost 1,000 followers on Twitter, which it uses to promote retail events involving its products. “On Facebook our fan base continues to grow very rapidly because I think the quality of what we’re seeing there, not just the content we provide but the content our consumers provide, is very high,” Howlett says. “People are coming back and suggesting that other people go there.”
A member of Nature’s Variety’s staff is responsible for these social media activities. “It’s so importantto have the right voice, the right tone, in responding to questions you get online,” he explains. Nature’s Variety also participates on a few blogs and has just upgraded its website, which receives over half a million visitors a year, Howlett says.
“The number of consumers we’re touching and we’re accessible to through digital and social media is very exciting, because it’s a way to build on our message and quickly further our purpose as a company,” he says. “If we’re doing that and maybe five other companies in natural and holistic foods are building category awareness, when you put that together it’s very powerful stuff.”
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