If ever there were times when pet food formulators could focus completely on pet nutrition without considering any other external factors, they are long gone. These days, manufacturers must contend with a host of complicated needs and wants from both animals and their human owners, including balanced nutrition, innovative and even human-like meals, looks and smells that appeal not just to the pets but to the people feeding those pets, and the push-and-pull of what pet owners want for their beloved furry family members versus what the industry knows is best for them.
Consumer “wants” drive how pet owners see pet food
“There’s more to our industry than just the pets,” said Chris Mondzelewski, general manager for pet specialty at Mars Petcare North America, at his headliner session at Petfood Forum 2017 in April. Pet food consumer “wants,” he said, are the true trend drivers, as societal trends continue to dominate purchasing decisions. Four of those wants in particular are the primary results of consumer desires, and control a lot of what goes on in their minds as they decide what to feed their pets:
- Simplicity: If I like it, my pet must, too.
- Seeing is believing: I want my pet’s food to look and smell like “real” food.
- Freshness: Fresh food has more nutrients and flavors.
- True transparency: I must know what’s in my pet’s food and how it was made.
This attitude makes sense, considering that nearly two-thirds of dog or cat owners “strongly agree” that pets are part of the family, and another one-quarter “somewhat agree,” according to Packaged Facts data. This well-established pet humanization trend translates directly into the expectations consumers have for the pet food they buy, said David Sprinkle, research director and publisher at Packaged Facts, during Petfood Forum 2017’s Innovation Workshop.
“Consumers want everything to look and feel the same,” said Ben Arnold, senior sales manager animal nutrition US for Ingredion Inc., at Workshop. “So when we’re looking at these trends and looking at what people say they want … the point is that people have a mindset of what they say they want, but it has to line up with their lifestyle.”
And that lifestyle includes, unsurprisingly, treating pets like family. According to Packaged Facts, 57 percent of cat owners keep their pet’s food in the kitchen or pantry, influencing the level of freshness they expect from a pet food. And 26 percent of consumers say that, other than health conditions and concerns, product freshness is the most important consideration in their pet food purchase.
Transparency, of course, is of increasing importance to pet owners. “Consumers will continue to demand transparency, which will lead to the increased use of certified ingredients,” said Jennifer Adolphe, PhD, senior nutritionist for Petcurean. But as the industry contends with an increasingly skeptical consumer base that doesn’t seem to trust “insider” (aka research-based) information, “the task of selling the science to consumers who really want the warm fuzzy feeling that their pet is getting food just like their own is a real challenge,” said Adolphe at Petfood Forum.
The future of balancing pet owner “wants” and pet “needs” in pet food
With the purchaser of pet food industry products being so different from the actual consumers of said products, finding the proper line between what will provide nutritionally balanced diets for pets and what will actually get those diets off shelves and into pets’ bowls is a significant industry challenge. “I think the starting point is meeting pets’ needs first,” said Richard Butterwick, global nutrition advisor at the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition. “[At Mars] we do that by embedding really high-quality standards in terms of how we design and manufacture our pet foods. However, having said that, I think it’s entirely possible to really put the lens of consumer wants on top of those needs, and meet those wants as long as we’re not compromising their needs.”
When it comes to pets, their health and well-being is one compromise the industry is never willing to make. “The reality is that the needs always have to come first,” said Mondzelewski. “The products that we’re making and putting out there are for the sustenance of dogs and cats. That always has to be our very first priority. Balancing that with the wants can be difficult at times, but we can never compromise on that. The trick for us is to find ways to be able to talk about and market those needs in a bigger way.”
Finding the information: tapping into consumer insight channels
Top pet food trends on consumers’ minds in 2017