As consumers have made it clear that they trust what they understand and perceive to be fresh, "real" ingredients, and as they demand the right to know what is in the foods they eat, should it come as a surprise that those same consumers are now insisting on the same right for the foods they feed their pets?

The focus on a clear brand message and using language consumers clearly understand is growing and not going away, according to Lynn Dornblaser of Mintel. So what exactly is a "clean label" and why is it important to not only pet parents, but packagers, marketers and manufacturers? When we talk about labels, we are refering to claims made on the packaging of the product as well as the list of ingredients and nutritional information. According to Mintel research, the most prevalent claims—no additives/preservatives, vitamin/mineral fortified and all natural—focus on the inherent goodness of ingredients in the food or treat. This pattern is similar to what we see in human food and drink.

As bloggers and Internet forums turn their attention to recent petfood contamination issues, consumers are more focused than ever on what's in the products they buy. A clean label utilizes simple packaging that conveys clearly the benefits of the product and lists easy to understand ingredients—this often means ones that consumers eat themselves. But pets are—no matter how much we humanize them—animals, and have different dietary needs than their pet parents.

Some brands understand that better than others and emphasize exactly why the ingredients in their recipes are vital to the health and well-being of the pet. Take, for example, K9 Natural's dog food, which positions themselves as 100% natural and also calls attention to the fact that the product is "based on the actual diet of a Grey Wolf, which shares 99.8% of its DNA with domestic dogs." According to the Petfood Forum presentation "Marketing & the Power of Pet Ownership." when savvy consumers choose a petfood from the shelf they look for the following things in the product:

  • Helps my pet and me improve our health and well-being;
  • Facilitates my passion for experiences and connection with my pet;
  • Enables a pet parenting community;
  • Educates me about pet nutrition;
  • Labeled as holistic, natural or organic;
  • Form and flavor variety;
  • Quality ingredients; and
  • Price

Are your labels clean, concise and portraying the right message to your audience?

Petco's pet nutrition education campaign focuses on labels

According a 2009 survey commissioned by Petco, 60% of pet owners said they needed better information to choose healthy food for their pets. Petco responded by launching a national pet nutrition education campaign for consumers which includes educational materials, pet nutrition guidance and a minimum of two trained nutrition experts in every one of Petco’s 950 US stores to help guide consumers to make smart decisions for their pets needs.

According to the survey results, nearly 80% of pet parents are confident their pet’s food is healthy and nutritious, but only four in 10 say they understand petfood labels. Results also show that whether choosing food for their families or their pets, most Americans are paying attention to nutritional value. The survey highlighted a significant disconnect between pet parent confidence in the nutritional value of their pet’s food and their ability to evaluate petfood value by reading package labels.