Geoff Bowers of raw petfood company K9 Natural has a unique take on customers. “It’s a simple rule: The customer, which in our case is the cat or dog, is always right. Something I firmly believe the petfood industry has overlooked.” (Read more on p. XX.)

I agree that sometimes the pet industry caters too much to humans’ taste and whims at the expense of the animals’ needs (tutus for dogs, anyone?). But when it comes to petfood, I have never considered the use of humanization to be literal, as in giving human characteristics or attributes to a non-human creature or object. To me—and, I suspect, most petfood manufacturers and professionals who follow the market—humanizing pets means caring for them with the same devotion and commitment as human family members, which we all know is exactly what pet owners have been doing for at least a decade now.

Yet some people seem to think our industry is jumping on the humanization bandwagon in a literal sense and treating pet owners as dupes in the process. In the November issue of the Whole Dog Journal, editor Nancy Kerns takes to task a recent blog post I wrote, along with other examples of industry usage of “humanization.” (My November column expanded on the post: www.petfoodindustry.com/8131.html.)

Her position is that humanization is an “industry insider” term that petfood companies don’t dare use “in front of the shills—sorry, consumers—themselves. Petfood companies don’t make shelf displays that proclaim, ‘Now designed to appeal to your appetite, you silly dog owner!’ even if that’s exactly what they are doing,” Kerns writes. (See http://bit.ly/scZ7Fo.)

Is that what  you are doing? Or are you simply responding to the pet-owning market’s needs and wants to treat their pets as well as they care for human family members and feed them healthy, high-quality nutrition?

Consumers are educating themselves more and more about nutrition, functional ingredients and similar aspects of well-being for themselves; and dedicated pet owners are doing the same for their pets. Kerns interprets my post as describing “petfoods that are made to appeal to human appetites,” and again, in the most literal sense, I suppose products that include fruits, vegetables and functional ingredients have that appeal. But I contend the main reason petfood companies use such ingredients is because research has shown that many of them meet the unique nutritional needs and contribute to the well-being of dogs and cats.

Not all these ingredients have research to back up their benefits—so yes, in those cases, including them in a petfood product and, especially, emphasizing their inclusion on the packaging and in promotional materials may be purely marketing. But that doesn’t mean manufacturers employing that strategy consider pet owners “shills”; rather, they are responding to many pet owners’ professed desire to feed their pets fresh, wholesome food.

Nearly everyone who  works in this industry is a pet lover and owner, so viewing pet-owning consumers as ignorant and easily duped would not only feel completely foreign to them, they also know it would be a bad business strategy in this age of the informed consumer. In fact, I question whether Kerns gives her readers and other dog owners enough credit when she writes that “it’s proving to be simple to manipulate consumers.”

Unlike Kerns, who argues that using ingredients that “sound like real food items"..."shouldn’t be a marketing strategy; it should be a basic pet care precept,” I believe petfood manufacturers can pursue both to the benefit of their companies, pet owners and pets all at once.

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