In 1998, at the age of just 25, Christian Degner-Elsner started what was to become a life-long career path in the petfood industry when he founded one of the largest Scandinavian petfood brands. In 2010, Degner-Elsner exited the business successfully to a venture fund. Then, in January 2013, Degner-Elsner launched Essential Foods—a company he describes as “his take on making a serious mark in the international world of petfoods.”
With less than two years in the European superpremium petfood market, Essential is already making enviable gains in an oversaturated and slightly stagnant area of the globe. “We expect and plan for a 50% increase in sales, based on the growth we see at our current exclusive distributors and the current talks with possible new distribution partners,” Degner-Elsner says. But he is also quick to point out that profit is certainly not the driving force behind his brand.
“Without being disrespectful, as this is certainly not our intention, most petfood companies appear to be in the business merely for profit, in the sense that they are a marketing brand, rather than a company striving to make a difference,” he says. “With our Behavioral Optimizing Foods (BOF) philosophy (see Figure 1) we are investing heavily in explaining the connection between nutrition and the behavior of the dog. This alone sets us apart from most, as the results are amazing when owners start realizing that the connection to the dog can be improved through what is served in the bowl.”
While Degner-Elsner thinks the fresh trend in petfoods will continue to expand, he also points to his brand's BOF concept as something to watch for as an industry trend in the near future. “It’s superior to the ‘back to wild’ trend, as it addresses a real issue for many dog owners,” he claims. BOF ensures the stability of the dog’s sugar level throughout the day by using high levels of freshly prepared and dried protein sources, says the company. “The result is a positive effect to the dog’s mental balance," says Degner-Elsner. "Some report seeing a dramatic transformation in their dog’s behavior, others note a smaller change; however, an improvement is usually recorded.”
Degner-Elsner also believes consumers will continue to focus more on the quality of life of the animal ingredients going into a bag of petfood. “A large share of consumers will soon demand proof that the animal ingredients have had a decent life, a trend that could have tsunami-like tendencies given the right circumstances,” he says. Essential Foods petfoods are prepared and cooked in the United Kingdom and filled with local ingredients: 95% caught, grown or raised in the UK. Protein sources include Gressingham duck, Ross chickens, red and fallow deer, British lamb, fresh eggs, Scottish salmon and River Avon trout.
“We are head-to-head with most premium/superpremium sold brands, but it would be a mistake for us to try and beat these in volume by using the very same sales strategies,” Degner-Elsner explains when asked about the rapid growth of his fledgling brand. “A company like Essential Foods becomes successful via authentic endorsements, and with the era of time we are in, with social media, this is a unique chance to claim a share of the international market, in the same way e-commerce has in the past decade.”
Though the company is well past the proof of concept phase, Degner-Elsner still respects the fact that Essential Foods is a new kid on the block, regardless of how attractive his products and brand is. “Obviously our large-scale breakthrough will be with a strong representation on the larger markets, something that we are certain will happen, but calls for great patience,” he says.
Essential expanded its petfood line just this year with the introduction of The Jaguar, the brand’s take on an 80% protein-based combined cat and kitten food. According to Degner-Elsner, the cat food has been received very well, primarily by their dog-enthusiast fan base, who also have cats in the household. “We are finalizing our dedicated small breed selection, as we see this segment as very interesting as well,” continues Degner-Elsner on the future of the company. “Being able to gain a strong foothold in Asia—this is a must. With the campaign ‘Don’t mistake size for personality’ we have received tremendous pre-launch interest.
“On the marketing and product side of the business, our aim from the beginning has been to change the way petfood is perceived," he says. "The task we have given ourselves is: How do we create an emotional involvement and attachment to a petfood brand? We are in the midst of a waiting game, which is not easy, being as ambitious about our mission as we are. While our set-up is complete, and we boast a track record of creating commercial success for our handful of exclusive distributors, the next level is forming partnerships in the larger markets in Europe, the Americas and Asia. This is our biggest challenge.”
But that’s not a bad place to be after just two years of operations, Degner-Elsner says.