Freely wants to make pet food simple

New company Freely Pet hopes to simplify the pet food experience for customers while taking care of pets through simplicity in product and support.

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Freely’s line of limited-ingredient products for dogs and cats include kibble, wet food and broths. | (Freely Pet LLC)
Freely’s line of limited-ingredient products for dogs and cats include kibble, wet food and broths. | (Freely Pet LLC)

There is an overabundance of choice when it comes to pet food these days — myriad categories, price points, brands, formulas and claims jump out at pet owners, all clamoring for attention while said owners’ heads spin. Survey after survey says customers just want what’s best for their animals, but reports also say those same customers are feeling overwhelmed in the pet food aisles.

When Reed Howlett, CEO of Freely Pet LLC (formerly CEO of pet food company Nature’s Variety), was considering re-entering the pet food market with a new company, he says he wanted to fill a need, not just shelf space.

“I looked very closely at the category and said, what are the unmet needs in this category?” says Howlett. “There are lots and lots of pet foods out there, so it’s not as though the category just needs another option. Consumers don’t necessarily need that, either, and if anything what Freely is founded upon is a very simple idea — and this is what we focused on when we decided to launch — that pet parents really are confused by all of the SKU proliferation out there. Freely is there to solve that and help pet parents navigate all the choices they have as they either adopt a new pet or go through a transition with their pet, when they’re in that moment where they’re deciding if they need to make a different choice and switch.”

Freely’s Nutrition Center: helping pet parents figure out pet food

Freely’s biggest differentiator, according to Howlett, is its Nutrition Center, where customers can speak with expert pet nutritionists and get advice on the best food for their pet.

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Freely’s Nutrition Center is a focal point for the company’s goal of helping pet owners wade through the sometimes confusing nutritional information out there for their pets. | Freely Pet LLC

“For pet parents, large brick-and-mortar isn’t the source of nutritional advice that it once was,” says Howlett. “E-commerce plays an important role, but getting advice through Amazon is really limited to ratings and reviews. Chewy actually provides some pretty good options for getting service, but it really depends on who you talk to. Neighborhood pet is really still where pet parents can get good nutrition advice, but let’s face it, many pet parents don’t shop at neighborhood pet stores for a variety of reasons.”

Freely has decided to try to be a place for advice, even if it doesn’t lead customers to Freely’s products, and that’s where the Nutrition Center comes in.

“We’ve got certified small animal nutritionists who are there to answer questions, but uniquely, to do it from an honest broker’s vantage point,” says Howlett. “If we hear you walk us through your particular situation and Freely isn’t the right food, then we’ll recommend another food, because we’re ultimately there to solve a problem for a pet parent.”

In 2021, Howlett says the company is going to get even more aggressive in storytelling around people being able to access the Nutrition Center free of charge in a way that is truly uninfluenced by brand considerations for Freely.

“We want them to view [the Nutrition Center] as a place to go to get answers, and whatever transpires from there relative to our brand will naturally unfold,” says Howlett. “So we have to share that story, and we’re doing that right now through digital advertising and social media. We think that’s the most authentic way to build our brand.”

Millennials and Gen Z: locking in on a target customer base

While Freely isn’t exclusively marketing to any one demographic, there’s no doubt that Millennial and Gen Z pet parents are very much on the company’s radar.

“Pet parents, particularly our target Millennial and Gen Z pet parents, really do get it,” says Howlett. “They’re very used to buying brands where they quickly take in that brand’s story, form an opinion on that brand and then decide if they want to learn more or not.”

Freely, he says, wanted to make that process as simple as possible, in terms of both process and product.

“On the product side, we wanted to make sure our solutions matched the simplicity we were going for on the service side,” says Howlett. “And that’s why we only have 44 sellable SKUs, it’s all limited-ingredient diets and it’s a very easy to navigate line.”

The company aims to meet the needs of a consumer who’s passionate about the category and being a pet parent, but may be lacking in the ability to cut through the market dissonance and confusion.

“A lot of packages have fields and streams and mountains and pictures of ingredients, which is great, but they all kind of look alike,” says Howlett. “[We decided that] anything we do has to earn its way onto the bag, and so our bag is very simple to navigate. We felt very strongly about that, and our target demographic is likely to go online for all the additional information they want anyway, so why try to put it on the bag? I think Millennial and Gen Z consumers are constantly judging brands on whether they make it easy for them to shop or not. The research process, selection, customer service, fulfilment … everything we’ve done end-to-end is to create an excellent experience.”

Product growth: plant-based pet food options

One trend that continues to carve out space for itself in pet food is plant-based proteins, and it’s an area Freely is actively looking to expand in.

“One thing we’ve really tried to lean in on is vegetarian and flexitarian — plant-based options,” says Howlett. “I’m involved with a plant-based meat company, and I’ve been really fascinated to see how many individuals start to eat plant-based. It’s not just about the true believers who are vegan and say that’s it, I’m only eating plant-based. Humans are creatures of habit, and if they’re going to break that habit it’s going to be in small pieces. That’s why a lot of the plant-based companies recognize that their main target consumer is a flexitarian — someone who’s going to eat meat six days a week and maybe plant-based one day a week. So we’ve developed vegetarian options, both dry and wet, within the Freely line, which have been very popular to this point, and we’ve also introduced flexitarian, which is a blend of our plant-based vegetarian formula and then turkey. And I think people get that, because there are a lot of Millennial and Gen Z consumers who for planetary or animal welfare reasons love the idea of being able to feed either a vegetarian or flexitarian diet.”

Looking to the future: getting the right people

As a new company that intended to hit its first stride in 2020, things have been challenging. Freely’s plan was initially more of a balance between brick-and-mortar partnerships and online presence, but COVID-19 put a halt to that balance. Still, Howlett says it’s not just about market presence in the long term; it’s about having the right people putting in the work.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is the talent we have on the team,” says Howlett. “As we continue to build in 2021 and beyond, we’ll continue to be very focused on that. We want to make sure we continue to raise the bar for ourselves from a talent perspective as we build the company. I’m a big believer that the company you keep is the company you become, and therefore make sure you have the right people around you. When you do that, incredible things can happen quickly if you have the right value proposition.”

 

Fast Factsfreely-logoHeadquarters: St. Louis, Missouri, USA

Officers: Reed Howlett, CEO

Brands: Freely

Website/Social Media: www.freelypet.com, @freelypet on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

Notable: Freely’s small team is made of committed pet owners: Among the 15 furry members of the Freely family are dogs, cats and a horse.

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