In my 40+ year history in pet food, communication content and style to consumers have ranged widely among brand marketing, regulatory, bloggers, unofficial website experts, universities and ingredient suppliers. Communication is a complex mix of purpose and desired outcome, often with opposing positions.
In pet food marketing, it is much easier to communicate ingredient stories than nutrition and health. Over time, we have seen nearly every ingredient demonized including corn, wheat, soybean, potatoes, vitamin K, chicken and now peas. My first boss once told me, “If you work long enough, you will likely make products out of air and water.” I’m not sure I really understood how prophetic he was.
Our overall message to consumers has become mostly ingredient-focused with words like “free,” “no,” “recipe” and “with.” Ingredient misinformation has been hyper-inflated to suggest many health implications when nutrition science and health is about nutrients, bioavailability, balance and proper fortification with experienced formulation. The simple truth is, ingredients provide nutrients, structure, form, delivery and even efficacy to the product.
Different communication styles in different areas of labeling
Differing communication positions exist between brand marketing and regulatory officials. We often forget that our main purpose is to provide the consumer with clear information about the product in understandable terms. Labeling should be easy to read, describing product safety along with nutritional purpose (balance, fortification, quality, life stage, health and how to use). I think we can all agree with this goal. What defines labeling clarity is where we don’t always agree.
Regulatory officials focus on label formatting consistency and product safety as a desired outcome for consumers; however, consumer communication is limited. Their desired purpose is to provide consumers with good information and protection while hopefully keeping the playing field level among brands.
Pet food marketing and sales focus more on describing features and benefits, with a purpose to build brand separation with “points of differentiation.” The preference is for shorter ingredient panels while creating consumer awareness and even “need.” This is what makes ingredient messaging easier to focus upon rather than nutrition and health.
The move to a dominant ingredient message is often guided by regulatory ingredient terminology and requirement. The classic example of this is corn gluten meal (a demonized ingredient). Corn does not contain gluten as suggested. Historically, proteins were called gluten incorrectly decades ago. As the negativity of the term gluten became more important in human foods, it quickly became negative in pet products. Thankfully, this common ingredient was finally accepted as corn protein meal. However, was it important to add the word “meal” (as this is an often-negative word to consumers)?
Labeling confusion can muddy communication waters
Adding “extra” words in ingredient terminology often does not add to good communication and makes ingredient lists longer and less clear. The word “dried” is such an example. Many Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) ingredient terms include “dried” as part of the accepted wording. As an example: “Dried apple pomace.” We dry corn, but don’t require the word “dried” as part of that proper description. We also state “dried fermentation products” (e.g., dried Lactobacillus acidophilus fermentation product) when all probiotic bacteria are fermentation products followed by a freeze-drying process. Is the word “dried” necessary, or is it just more? What about “fermentation” and “product?” To reduce the ingredient length and to avoid consumer confusion, why not label a probiotic like human foods (e.g., Lactobacillus acidophilus)?
More confusion can be found in fiber source terminology where communication to consumers is inconsistent (see fiber source names using bran, pulp, pomace, fiber, grass or even roughage). Does a consumer know what pulp is versus pomace? When we use cellulose fiber, we need to label it as “powdered” cellulose. Are not all fibers ground and in a powder form? When we use beet fiber, we call it a pulp and, surprisingly, we need to use that word “dried” again (dried beet pulp).
Why words matter
Extra words are just more and don’t help communication. If the goal in labeling is to help the consumer, all of us are losing the battle. The number of “hits” on internet blogs and pet nutrition mis-information websites are indicators that show consumers are seeking most information from many untrained sources that build further miscommunication. The misinformation surrounding recent heart health issues and actions taken should alarm us.
Consumers want clear, understandable messages on safety, nutrition and health, balance, fortification and quality. They want to hear from brand marketing and regulatory and nutrition experts with understandable terminology and definitions. They want consistency in wording and formatting, but they want reliable information, too. Ingredient definitions and terms should be challenged regularly to ensure consumer understanding and consistency with human foods. Rather than consumers doubting our products, collectively we can build confidence showing how great our ingredients are, stating “this product is nutritious for your pet carefully crafted with wholesome, approved ingredients providing balanced and fortified nutrients to support your pet’s long-term health.”
More litigation trends in the pet food and treat industries
Briefly: Top 5 takeaways
- Communication is a complex mix of purpose and desired outcome, often with opposing positions.
- Our overall message to consumers has become mostly ingredient-focused.
- Differing communication positions exist between brand marketing and regulatory officials, and we forget that our main purpose is to provide the consumer with clear information in understandable terms.
- Adding “extra” words in ingredient terminology often does not add to good communication and makes ingredient lists longer and less clear.
- Consumers want clear, understandable messages on safety, nutrition and health, balance, fortification and quality.