["There’s no place we feel more passionate about than raw, because it delivers every day in such meaningful ways.", "Rotating different types of proteins and forms is very beneficial to the pet."]

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.”

Just the facts

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

Employees: 100+

Website: www.naturesvariety.com