3 tips for sustainable pet food innovation

For a mature industry like pet food, innovation becomes difficult to achieve, yet perhaps sustainability provides an opportunity as it’s gaining traction.

Constraints and crises like those experienced in 2020 can help drive innovation, and sustainability offers context. |
Constraints and crises like those experienced in 2020 can help drive innovation, and sustainability offers context. |

Success in the pet food market has long been driven by innovation, yet experts often lament that true innovation is lacking, and perhaps difficult to achieve, in a mature industry like pet food. Does sustainability present an opportunity?

Tim Schuster, founder and CEO of strategy and innovation consulting firm Popup Think Tank, thinks so. In an October 2020 webinar hosted by the Pet Sustainability Coalition, he quoted from the Harvard Business Review: “Sustainability is a motherlode of innovation.” Plus, delivering value (with a product, for example) and capturing value in return (as with a profit) without regard to environmental and sustainable impact is not innovation; it’s exploitation, Schuster stressed.

Acknowledging that innovation is hard work, he provided tips:

1. Start with constraints. “Creativity loves constraints,” he said. Those can be the situation or context, a specific need or limited resources. “Our minds love a context,” Schuster added, which sustainability provides. And innovation is usually driven by necessity, “our backs up against the wall.” It also often emerges from the bottom up, because those on the “frontlines” working directly with customers have the best and most immediate insights into their needs and pain points.

2. Innovation is not up to us. It’s not even a helpful word, Schuster said, because it often leads to just doing something new without value. True innovation arises when the product or service is used by the consumer, delivering value. And sometimes that value defies logic. As examples, Schuster mentioned Red Bull, Wikipedia, Starbucks; at the time, their “pitches” made no sense and were likely laughed at, but in hindsight they really worked because they provided value to consumers.

3. Embrace a tinker-and-test mentality. The only way to know if something will add value—perhaps especially if it seems illogical—is to create it, test it, improve it. Schuster recommended interviews to understand the consumer problem and thus find better solutions. Here’s a model: Ask who the product or solution is for and how it adds value (i.e., develop a hypothesis). Test it by building a prototype, then get feedback using these questions: What do you like about the prototype? What do you wish was different or want that isn’t there? What if it did ________? (Ask them to complete.) Finally, crucially, listen to what’s not being said in the responses.

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