As the COVID-19 pandemic swept around the world, leading pet food brands continued to market their products to pet food consumers sheltering at home – even increasing their advertising expenditures in the U.S., according to new data from MediaRadar, an advertising intelligence platform.
From March 8 to May 23, 2020, pet product brands overall spent 51% more on advertising year over year, the data show, and pet food brands specifically – which comprise 75% of the pet brands category – grew their spending by 30% from February 2020 to April. This was during the height of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.
It's likely many brands were trying to take advantage of pet owners’ increased interest in stocking up, even hoarding, food for their pets. New product launches may have played a role, too.
Interestingly, cat food brands’ advertising expenditures rose higher than those for dog food, at 38% and 17%, respectively, from March 8 to May 23, 2020. Yet dog food still dominates, of course. “Even with the faster growth, cat food remains a smaller subcategory in terms of advertising support,” said Todd Krizelman, co-founder and CEO of MediaRadar. “Year-to-date, dog food products have ad budgets that are 58% higher than cat food products.”
The top five advertisers in the pet products category are all pet food brands or companies: Mars Petcare, Nestlé Purina PetCare, General Mills. J.M. Smucker and the Farmer’s Dog (not in order, according to MediaRadar). Collectively, the companies have all spent more on advertising so far this year, which to date amounts to US$185 million in collective spending.
These companies, along with other pet food brands, no doubt are seeking to achieve or maintain customer loyalty during these times. That’s not a given, as data and other information indicate out-of-stock situations may have pushed some pet owners to try new brands – and if their pets do well eating them, they may decide to stick with the new foods.
In a survey conducted of U.S. consumers in late March 2020, nearly two-thirds said they had tried new brands during the crisis, with 79% of those doing so because their usual or preferred brand was out of stock. Conducted by AlixPartners, a business and management consultancy, the data also showed that at least a quarter of respondents who have tried new products plan to continue buying them post-crisis, with the percentage higher (30-45%) for new national brands tried, versus 25-30% for new private label brands tried. The data did not cover specific categories but rather consumer product goods (CPG) in general yet might provide a caution for pet food brands.
But the crisis, including the resulting shift to more online shopping, has also presented an opportunity for brands, pet food and otherwise. “When consumers are shifting to online purchases, they’re not necessarily going to the digital equivalent of the brick-and-mortar they were at; they might as well go directly to the brand to identify potential cost savings and things like that. It’s a really great opportunity for brands to be able to develop that direct connection with their consumers to drive up brand loyalty and awareness,” said Bethany Gomez, managing director of Brightfield Group, a market research and consumer insights firm.
CPG expert Bonin Bough suggested that brands can keep their messages and products front of mind by using digital channels that are reaching their customers today – especially mobile – and providing content that addresses pet owners’ current challenges. He also said pet food brands need to become savvy at using digital channels, in addition to e-commerce. “I’m not just talking about selling your product on Amazon,” he added; rather, it means having a true online relationship with your customers to understand where they are in the “purchase funnel” and to drive purchases, even if you don’t sell directly to them.
Besides securing customer loyalty, advertising and marketing provide a means to launch new products – long a driver of growth for the pet food market. Fortunately, that seems to be continuing even during the pandemic, even if it has slowed somewhat and may be affected by issues at retail.
Paul Manning, president and CEO of Sensient Technologies, said their customers are still requesting samples of the company’s color ingredients and carrying on with testing. Although the labs may not be fully staffed and running at full speed, they are running. “They're perhaps not as active as before this crisis, but there's still a strong interest,” Manning said, adding that many customers around the world plan to launch products in this crisis or very quickly after.
A respondent to a Petfood Industry survey of pet food professionals conducted in April said their company was still trying to introduce new products as part of its strategy, though some pet retailers seemed reluctant to take them on. “Retailers are more skittish at taking in new items because in many cases customers can only do curbside or just come in to get what they need,” the respondent said, concerned that this could lead to lost sales and stifle product innovation.
The cancellation of SuperZoo 2020, often a big launching pad for new products (along with Interzoo, now postponed to June 2021), may also put a damper on innovation. Yet as countries around the world start to open up from lockdowns and quarantines, and economies begin to recover, if slowly, opportunity still exists for pet food brands to reach consumers with new products, focusing more on digital means to meet pet owners where they are now.
Note: During Petfood Forum CONNECT, a panel will forecast trends as pet food emerges from the pandemic, while Bonin Bough will provide the keynote address.
View our continuing coverage of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic.