This past weekend, I sat down and watched the documentary “Pet Fooled” on Netflix, and while there were several things I was already expecting out of it (the message that the pet food industry cares about profits first and pets a far distant second, the idea that the industry is using marketing to deceive consumers, the overzealous focus on the melamine recalls without discussing any of the significant pet food safety changes that have come from those recalls in the decade since), one thing I wasn’t expecting was to agree with one of the main threads: the message that consumers are under-educated and overly confused about their options.

Consumers are, on both counts. What the documentary failed to address is that the pet food industry knows this and has been discussing the issue at great length for some time now.

Pet food marketing: deception or adaptation?

“Pet Fooled” presents pet food marketing (on packaging, specifically) as branding uniquely designed to pull at consumer heartstrings and obfuscate the truth of what’s in formulations. This message was given in the larger context of the documentary (which is styled as an exposé), and while that track is obviously not one any industry professional is going to agree with, the overarching message has some merit. Of course branding is designed to capture consumers’ attention — that’s what marketing does. From human food to real estate to new cars to pet food, language and visuals on packaging (a form of advertising, after all, as well as being functional) play key roles in catching and keeping the attention of their intended audience.

And of course there’s a lot of relative-sounding language on pet food packaging: phrases like “real meat,” “all natural” and “ancestral.” But what is “real” and what is “natural,” and what pet food purchaser actually knows the definition of an “ancestral” diet? I’ve been to enough conventions and tradeshows (including Petfood Forum 2017, which WATT Global Media and Petfood Industry wrapped for another year in April 2017) to know that the industry is constantly discussing and refining these definitions, in an effort to best serve itself and its customers … both human and non-human.

The pet food industry is not out to fool consumers. Pet owners see “real” and “natural” on their own food products and decide that their pets need the same types of options. The industry takes those consumer decisions into account, and so you have pet food packaging that looks more and more like what you see on your own grocery store shelves. Deceptive? No. Adaptive? Yes. Confusing and overwhelming? It can be, especially since consumer desires are becoming so nuanced, and the industry is trying so hard to cater to all those desires while maintaining the uncompromising nutritional standards necessary to keep the true customers — pets — happy and healthy.

Briefly: current popular pet food packaging statements

  • Organic
  • GMO-free
  • Bioavailable
  • Sourced/made in the USA
  • Whole food ingredients

Source: Don Tomala, managing partner of Matrix Partners