Can science and marketing both win in the pet food industry? Five industry experts tackled this topic during the panel discussion, “Science vs. marketing: What’s driving pet food product development?” during Petfood Forum 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri, last week.

Nutritionists and veterinarians at pet food companies work hard to make sure the science behind their formulations is sound, but marketing often tries to cater to what pet owners think they want rather than the nutrition that pets need.

But science and marketing can co-exist, said Jeff Alix, global marketing manager for DSM Nutritional Products.

“We’re talking about, in most cases, the pet parent’s perception of what it is that they want,” Alix said. “So if you look at it in that light and try to understand what they truly want for their pet, there are ways that you can truly market your product while leveraging all the nutritional science that you need to to get that done.”

Alix was joined on the panel by Serge Boutet, agrologist and animal nutrition expert at SB Nutrinnov Consultants; Brent Mayabb, DVM, chief veterinary officer and vice president of corporate affairs at Royal Canin; Jeff Johnston, senior vice president, research, innovation and product development at Champion Petfoods; and Nicolas Nolf, president and founder of Atavik pet food company. The discussion was moderated by Debbie Phillips-Donaldson, editor-in-chief of Petfood Industry

Johnston said marketers and scientists walk a fine line and there must be a healthy tension between the two.

“Marketers are trying to constantly think about what’s the point of differentiation,” he said. “In the marketing world, you have to learn to almost live in the gray space ... in understanding how to explain about something in real-world terms that is different than maybe what somebody else is doing. So there’s always that constant tension.”

And, there’s the desire to be the first to market with a new product while also taking the time to test the product before its release.

“One wants to develop the science and understand it before going there and make sure it’s safe, and the other wants to be the first into the gate and make sure you get that advantage,” Johnston said.

Nolf said an added challenge that pet food companies face is the consumers’ love-hate relationship with science.

“A lot of consumers have lost a lot of the trust that they had,” he said. “People have this kind of schizophrenic relationship with science and scientific proof. … People are requesting scientific proof, but they will start questioning the source for that proof as soon as you give it to them.”

But, ultimately, Nolf said, “regardless of how good your marketing is or how good your science says you are, the only thing that matters is whether people are going to see an actual difference in their pet after a couple weeks using your product. … If they can’t see it, they just will stop buying it.”

Trends in pet food

It has long been the case that the trends seen in human food also show up in pet food. Panelist said consumers right now are asking for clean labeling, a short list of ingredients, no artificial preservatives, high-quality ingredients and a focus on safety, among other things.

But, while many of these trends can benefit pets, panelists agreed that what’s good for humans isn’t always good for pets.

“The trends do a little bit of a disservice in the sense that it allows certain types of company philosophies to go down a pathway that I believe is dangerous for animals,” Alix said.

Because of this, focus must remain on pet health, panelists said.

“Always remember, dogs and cats are not little people. They are animals,” Boutet said. “There are things that are dedicated for them and need to be for them.”

Mayabb said education is key to helping pet owners and veterinarians understand what pets need.

“There’s a place for a lot of different philosophies,” he said. “Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, the education piece is a really big key to that. It’s just helping them understand. Everybody’s  coming from the right place, everybody wants the best for their pet.”