Defining innovation

Innovation in new product development has been a force in our industry's growth. - Debbie Phillips-Donaldson

The ability to innovate is a necessity today, but just what is innovation? How do you measure it?

BusinessWeek magazine took a stab at it a couple years ago, sending a survey to the 1,500 largest global corporations (market capitalization in US dollars) and asking each company to distribute the survey to its top 10 executives in charge of innovation. Whatever that is; the information on methodology doesn't say if the survey defined what being "in charge of innovation" means. The survey included optional questions on "innovation metrics;" again, no explanation as to what those might be.

The result was "The World's 50 Most Innovative Companies." BusinessWeek must feel confident about the list, because earlier this year it created an Innovation Index with Standard & Poor's, tracking the stock market performance of the 25 most innovative companies (see , upper right corner).

New products galore

In my mind this is all fairly subjective. But I think most people in our industry would agree that innovation - at least in the form of new product development - has been a primary force behind the strong growth we've seen in petfood for several years and that is projected for more years to come. That's why Petfood Industry started "New on the Shelves" in August 2006. More new retail products are posted on

If you peruse this page monthly or scroll through the consumer products online, you'll notice that much of the innovation has been with ingredients (kangaroo or ostrich, anyone?) or items like breed-specific dog foods. Many of the new offerings come from small to medium-size companies.

Then along comes giant Mars Inc. with its new WholeMeals line for dogs, which promises to shake up the traditional petfood category lineup we're used to operating in and consumers are used to choosing from.

Of course, Mars has tons of resources to devote to new product development - the team behind WholeMeals has been working on it for nearly seven yearsand to marketing. It launched the line at Global Pet Expo in San Diego, California, USA, in February.

Stumbling upon genius?

Just one aisle over from the huge Mars booth at the show, I happened to stumble on another concept I consider truly innovative, in this case in distribution. Buy the Pound ( ), based in Massachusetts, USA, is a new company started by a former petfood distributor, Greg Mazur. He partnered with Ken Sears, the inventor of a dispensing machine originally developed for birdseed.

Mazur also worked with three nutritionists to develop a natural dry diet, Nature's Mix Feline Fusion and Canine Fusion. The innovation comes in how the diet is mixed and dispensed.

Buy the Pound's model is to install a dispensing machine in pet stores that allows consumers, via a computer interface, to choose among eight protein sources, selecting one or varying percentages of several, and mix custom dry diets for their pets. For example, you could choose 50% chicken-based kibble, 30% salmon, 10% whitefish, 5% duck and 5% beef. The eight different kibbles are stored in bins within the machine, which dispenses the programmed blend in 1 pound increments.

To me, the genius of this method lies not only in the consumer being able to create a custom blend but also to choose a quantity. You can buy only 1 pound and see how your pet likes its taste and reacts to the protein source. And you can save up to 10 custom mixes in the machine's database, then retrieve one or more the next time you buy petfood.

Buy the Pound is starting a pilot program this month in PetSmart stores in Boston, Massachusetts, and Phoenix, Arizona, USA. We'll keep you posted on how it goes.

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