Natural petfood: It’s all about the ingredients
Many petfood trends and marketing pitches focus on natural, often featuring what’s not in the product as much as what is
The most important marketing and product trends in natural petfoods have always involved—quite naturally—what the products are made of. But the ingredients thrust gained much momentum as a result of the spring 2007 petfood recalls, and the petfood industry’s fixation on ingredients continues to this day as product recalls keep the consumer focus on product quality and marketers tussle to make their products stand out from the superpremium pack.
As a result, many of the most important petfood product pitches and trends today come down squarely in the court of natural, with what’s not in a product featured as prominently as what is. This is seen in trends including grain-free, meat as the number one ingredient, no byproducts or fillers, no artificial preservatives and limited ingredients. Other earmarks of this trend include formulations boasting human-grade ingredients; more “real” or “whole” ingredients, including fresh meat, fruits and vegetables; and trendy functional ingredients such as omega-3 and -6 fatty acids.
With so many natural petfoods hitting the market, companies are seeing the need to emphasize the superiority of their formulations. Knowing better than to rest on its natural petfood marketâ€“leading laurels, during 2012 Nutro came out with Nutro Ultra, with advertising and packaging featuring the slogan “Nature’s Very Best Ingredients.”
In a 2012 trade ad for its flagship Nutro Natural Choice, Nutro poses the question “How natural is your natural?” The ad notes that “unlike some other brands, we carefully select our ingredients from farmers and ranchers we know and trust.”
The headline of a 2012 trade ad from Halo, Purely for Pets advises, “There’s ‘natural’—and there’s Halo natural,” going on to quote company co-owner Ellen Degeneres as saying, “I believe in treating pets like you’d treat yourself,” referring to Halo’s human-quality ingredients. Marketers are also differentiating by using buzz terms like ancestral diets (referring to heavy-duty, meat-first, grain-free and raw foods) and holistic, which is basically just a fancier way of saying “all-natural.”
On a regular basis, natural petfood makers are also improving their product recipes. In one of the biggest recent moves, in September 2012 Natura Pet Products announced it is upgrading all its Innova dry foods and treats. The new formulas include more poultry and fish, 100% whole grains and a greater variety of fruits and vegetables, including pears, blueberries, green beans and parsnips. White rice and potatoes have been removed for a lower glycemic index, allowing for more antioxidants, fiber, minerals and vitamins through the inclusion of whole grains, the company says.
It’s no wonder natural petfood marketers are upping the ante, given all the new competition afoot. After a few false starts, natural appears to be catching on in the mass and grocery channels, judging from the solid sales performance of Iams Healthy Naturals (Iams/Procter & Gamble), Purina One Beyond (NestlÃ© Purina) and Rachael Ray Nutrish (Ainsworth/Dad’s), all of which registered double-digit sales gains during the 52 weeks ending September 9, 2012, according to SymphonyIRI.
In case that’s not enough, in August 2012 Walmart introduced its first superpremium store-brand dry dog food, Pure Balance, into more than 2,900 stores nationwide. Pure Balance’s primary ingredient is either real lamb or poultry. The line contains no soy, wheat or corn additives, no artificial colors, no preservatives and no chicken byproducts; and it features a blend of omega-6 and -3 fatty acids good for a healthy coat and skin, while also supporting vision health, heart health and immunity, the company says.
On the pet specialty side, with its April 2012 acquisition of Castor & Pollux and September 2012 organic certification of all its Texas plants, Merrick Pet Care has made it clear that it intends to be a bigger player in the upper echelons of natural petfood.
Also in September 2012, Hill’s Pet Nutrition committed completely to natural with the announcement it is reformulating Science Diet with natural ingredients. Because Science Diet is one of the top-selling brands in the pet specialty channel overall, its wholesale conversion to natural seems certain to change the natural petfood marketer and brand rankings while tilting the pet specialty balance even more heavily in favor of natural.
What’s more, as Science Diet converts to natural and the natural petfood competition heats up even more, it’s increasingly likely that one of the leading natural brands in the pet specialty channel will make the leap into mass, further blurring the already somewhat tenuous distinction between the natural petfood brands sold in the two channels.