Collecting consumer data through traditional channels tends to be either costly and time consuming, as with surveys, or imprecise, like retail sales records. To meet consumer demands for personalized pet foods, brands can use data from profiles created by pet owners themselves on those brands’ websites and apps, Justin Shmalberg, DVM, chief nutrition officer with Nom Nom, said in his presentation at Petfood Forum CONNECT. Using profile data works especially well for pet food companies that sell direct to consumers.
“Taking the broad overview of personalization, I think everyone recognizes in industry or in a nutrition more broadly, that we have a fundamental problem that dogs and cats often have individualized responses to nutritional products,” he said. “For me, personalization is a product-recommendation experience that optimizes the individual [pets’] response to diet or dietary supplements using scientific data. It's a way to try to predict those individualized responses and really prophylactically provide some information.”
Pet food companies offer customized feeding options, such as quantity and frequency, and preference options, including specific ingredients to use or avoid. Personalized pet food formulations also attempt to meet animals’ specific health needs.
“Personalization is the mechanism we should be thinking about how to reduce product failure with the recognition that no diet is ever perfect for all pets,” he said. “Certainly if we get personalization right, and our recommendations are strong, we can reduce customer churn and increase satisfaction and brand loyalty.”
However, Shmalberg said cracking the code to personalization requires a scientific piece.
“Certainly a lot of guidelines that are out there to veterinarians or to animal owners are stressing the influence of scientific formulation of products. and by extension, I think if we have personalized, personalized recommendations, we should think about science as well,” he said. “At the end of the day, the only way to really understand individualized responses to diet and nutritional products is going to be a scientific effort. I think everyone can accept that very intuitively.”
That scientific approach requires information about a specific dog, cat or other pet. To acquire an individual dog’s demographics and health record, pet food brands may need their customers as sources of that data.
Following a direct-to-consumer model works well for pet food personalization, Shmalberg said, compared to other means of collecting data. When pet owners sign up with a pet food delivery service, like his employer NomNomNow, the consumers willingly hand over data that would be difficult to acquire otherwise.
“If we take the opposite approach, which is trying to get that [data] in a traditional retail model, we know we're not really collecting any information, certainly as the manufacturer, about our customers, and the pets that are being fed the particular diets or nutritional products We can do market surveys,” he said. “Those are expensive and laborious. We could recruit cohorts of customers for scientific study.That's quite difficult, I can say speaking from experience. We can also use kennel dogs, but that may not be a real-world feeding environment.
“The direct to consumer approach is an entirely different landscape,” he said. “We have highly engaged customers, providing us information in a signup flow. They're feeding dogs in real world environments. We can get different tiers of data collection. We can get very basic breed information to predict calories, or we can get detailed health information if customers are willing to provide that.”
With direct-to-consumer sales, a pet food company can build a customer experience with data and personalization using three methods of data collection.
1. Profile Creation
“We can ask before somebody purchases a product about their animals’ weight, age, breed, gender and body condition,” Shmalberg said. “These basic things don't really slow down the process, but provide us some information. The completion of this profile may provide us additional data mining opportunities to think about allergies, special needs, what kind of feeding plan we want to recommend.”
2. Health Assessments
“You need to decide what's important to you as a company, which probably is based upon the underlying corporate and scientific philosophy.” he said.
He noted the example of one pet food brand that uses multiple surveys asking for 125 unique questions that speak to basic health. information, medical histories, behavioral influences, etc.
3. Microbiome Sequencing
“We could take this really far in advance and say we're going to look at nutrigenomics or maybe the microbiome as factors that scientifically could explain individualized responses and therefore contribute to personalization,” Shmalberg said.
Genetic sequencing techniques can identify factors that might not be self-evident, such as the variety of microbes living in pet’s guts or microbiome.
“We know that our current measures of nutritional adequacy probably fail us in predicting how well an individual animal is going to do on a particular dietary intervention,” he said. “By that I mean, feeding trials and blood analytes aren't the best. Microbiome is potentially another tool to use in combination with that.”
For example, yet-unpublished research concluded that unique features of the microbiome can suggest how well an individual animal is going to respond to probiotics, he said.
Along with improved health for pets, individualized diets may prove profitable for pet food companies, Shmalberg said.
“Personalization increasingly looks like it may be a profitable exercise,” he said. “That becomes very exciting, because if profits can go back into reinforcing nutritional recommendations, it increases the credibility of companies, provides a better customer experience, yields healthier pets and everyone's happy at the end of the day.”
Pet owners want a lot from their pet food brands. They want primary proteins that suit what they believe is best for their animal. They want grains or they don't. They want something customized, but it has to be easy to understand.
Constraints and crises, like those experienced in 2020, help drive innovation and sustainability offers context.