Adventures in Pet Food

Debbie Phillips-Donaldson, editor-in-chief of Petfood Industry, shares her insights and opinions on all things pet food, addressing market trends as well as news and developments in pet nutrition, food safety and other hot topics for the industry.
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More pet owners may be returning to brick-and-mortar stores to buy their pets’ food. | Zinkevych I iStock.com

Top 2023 human food trends: Value is key for pet food, too

The pet food market has been famously and fortunately resilient, experiencing ongoing growth in the face of recessions, a pandemic and inflation, to name a few of the major challenges the world has undergone in the past 15 years. Yet that doesn’t mean consumers, including pet owners, can and will continue to support the industry at the same level indefinitely.

In fact, some trends on the human food side may offer a cautionary tale for pet food brands. On its annual list of the top 10 trends for the coming year, Innova Market Insights has placed “redefining value” as number one, followed by “affordable nutrition” at number two.

Consumers seek brands that respond to their core values

In a webinar announcing the top 10 trends for 2023, Luann Williams, Innova’s global insights director, said, “Trends don’t just stop on December 31; they build on previous trends.” For example, the top one, redefining value, builds on trends going back as far as 2005-06, starting with clean label, which “laddered up” into larger trends like trust and transparency. Now it’s all about consumers needing to make hard choices because of rising prices, Williams said, so brands must cultivate a deep understanding of where consumers draw the line on compromise.

A 2022 Innova survey of consumers in 11 countries (Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Spain, U.K. and U.S.) identified human food product features they’re willing to pay more for: fresh, locally produced and functional ingredients that boost physical health. That last feature at least should resonate with pet food brands, too.

What’s important to remember, Williams said, is that consumers look for brands that respond to their core values at a certain price, which, of course, will vary depending on many factors. Understanding those factors—values and price restraints—for your target consumers is key.

(Note: In the opening keynote for Petfood Forum 2023 on May 2, David Allison will explain his Valuegraphics Project, a large database of the core values of global consumers, and why he believes those values matter more than traditional consumer demographics in terms of purchase decisions. His presentation will include data on the core values of pet owners.)

Affordability is key to feeding many humans and pets

Closely linked to redefining value, Innova’s second trend of affordable nutrition offers a “virtually untapped opportunity for innovation,” Williams said, and not just in developing markets. After all, food insecurity is a significant problem in developed countries, too (including for pets), and to meet the demand for high nutritional value at the right price, innovation is necessary to maximize efficiency and yields, according to the webinar.

In the Innova survey, respondents said health and affordability should be the main drivers behind food and beverage product launches, at 41% and 30%, respectively, with naturalness (tied to health in many consumers’ perceptions) at 28%. Accordingly, Innova has tracked 86% year-over-year growth in food and beverage launches with a budget-related claim.

This data, along with a focus on consumers’ core values, may provide a guide to pet food brands in navigating today’s environment. “The market has the potential to fracture, favoring affluent and superpremium consumers at the expense of the broader category,” cautioned Bryan Jaffe and John Gulvezan of Cascadia Capital, in the investment firm’s “Pet Industry Overview: Fall 2022” report focused on the U.S. market.

“The inflationary cycle is pricing some ownership segments out of the market, a situation exacerbated by physical retailers curtailing shelf-space allocation to mid-grade and value-oriented solution sets and the promotional burden for these brands online, the report continued. “Avoiding a bifurcation of demand depends on marketers’ wiliness to pass on cost savings to customers and address affordability and access.”

How health and wellness play out on label claims, regulations

Several other trends in Innova’s top 10 play a role in pet food, too, such as “plant-based,” number six, which has been on the human food list for a few years now. Another, “unpuzzle health,” at number nine, speaks to how consumers are trying to understand the healthfulness of products. Label claims on packages are a “go-to” source of information for consumers wanting to know the health and nutritional value of a product, according to Innova.

Regulations play a key role here. “Nothing drives a trend faster than the government,” Williams said. “I do think we’re at that point of no return, that governments have looked into the future of public health budgets.” She was referring to obesity in humans and the link to foods and beverages, but as we know, regulations heavily influence label claims on pet foods, too, and will continue to do so.

In the human food world, food and beverage product launches with a regulated nutrition warning label of some type increased 69% YOY in 2022, according to Innova data.

The Innova survey asked consumers about the extent they use various sources of information to determine how healthy a product is, and worldwide, the ingredient list and nutritional label came in first and second, respectively. “I don’t believe that,” Williams said. “However, it tells you what consumers think they should be doing. It’s important to have it there, because they will probably look for commentary online which, right or wrong, they will find what they consider a trusted source of information, again, right or wrong. That is reality.” These insights on consumer behavior very likely apply to some pet owners, too.

As a corollary, Williams pointed out another interesting information source named in the survey: consumers’ own research.

Don’t be afraid to talk about your challenges

The final trend on Innova’s 2023 list, “positively imperfect,” is all about transparency, which has also appeared on previous lists because of consumer demand. Three in five consumers surveyed said their trust in brands increased when the company was honest about its challenges. The example Williams gave was a dog food package with text explaining what part of the packaging material is recycled or recyclable, what isn’t and why.

The other five trends are “generational push,” “farming the future,” “quick quality,” “devouring digital” and “revenge spending.”

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