How much should consumer trends drive pet food products?

Pet food is a fast-moving consumer good, so consumer demands and trends are important — but a company also should be guided by its nutritional philosophy.

Royal Canin's nutritional philosophy has led to the development of many breed-specific pet foods with distinct kibble shapes. l Debbie Phillips-Donaldson
Royal Canin's nutritional philosophy has led to the development of many breed-specific pet foods with distinct kibble shapes. l Debbie Phillips-Donaldson

The pet food category is known in market research terms as a fast-moving consumer good (FMCG), which confers both advantages and disadvantages for pet food brands and companies. One of the positives is implied in the “fast-moving” part: as with human food and other consumables, consumers need to buy it on a continual, recurring basis. And, thanks to long-term, ongoing humanization, category sales in this case have also continued to move fast and upward.

Yet the keen, constant consumer focus — the consumer is always king, right? — also can present a downside: pet food brands sometimes feel pressured, even beholden, to the latest trends, hype and pet owner demands.

Royal Canin feels these pressures, said Loic Moutalt, CEO, but by staying true to its philosophy of putting dogs and cats first — backed by research and science on their nutritional needs — the company tries not to succumb to them. This has been true over the company’s 50-year history, which Moutault identified as the company’s greatest achievement over that period. (The company has been a division of Mars since 2002.)

“To stick to this philosophy — you know, there is a lot of pressure, consumer trends, societal trends, public opinion — Royal Canin has stuck to its founder’s idea, which is, full nutrition can improve the health of cats and dogs,” Moutault said. “So if we keep studying the physiology of the cat or the dog, then we can develop more precise knowledge, and we can formulate more precise nutrition solutions for the well-being of the animals.”

Everybody laughed at a breed-specific cat food

I spoke with Moutault during the Future of Animal Companionship Conference, which Royal Canin organized on October 24 in Paris as part of its 50th anniversary celebration. The company invited experts from many disciplines — urban planning, animal behavior and nutrition, human nutrition, consumer consulting, sustainability and technology — to discuss the future of pet ownership, but my conversation with the CEO centered on the company and its philosophy.

“I’ve been in business a long time, and the pressure you have to create growth, follow the trends, make sure you’re on the market trend — and Royal Canin has never thought this way, never really worked this way,” he said. “It’s always created its own market. We have sometimes launched a product there was no market for.”

As an example, Moutault pointed to its first breed-specific food, formulated for Persian cats and launched in 1999. “This was an iconic product,” he said, which came about after a Persian breeder noticed some of her cats wouldn’t eat all of their kibble. That was communicated to Royal Canin, and out of curiosity, someone there decided to try and find out why. “This wasn’t a research brief; someone got curious and decided to look at it. That tells you about our company.”

The researcher placed some kibble and a Persian on a piece of glass and watched the cat eat from underneath — and saw that the cat ate by trying to scoop up the kibble with the underside of its tongue (“like a hook,” Moutault said), very likely due to its brachycephalic face. That led to the company developing a specially shaped kibble for Persians, with an accompanying appropriate formula.

The concept seemed rather far-fetched at the time. “When we launched this product, everybody laughed; the competition laughed,” Moutalt said. Yet now the company’s success rests in part on its portfolio of 55 different breed products for cats and dogs, all based on scientific research into each breed’s special needs, he added. “We are the only company having that, and we can do life-stage products for each of those. We created this market.”

Communicating a nutritional philosophy

Later in the week, during a tour of Royal Canin’s headquarter campus in Aimargues, France, the company’s scientific director, Vincent Biourge, Ph.D., explained how the company’s nutritional philosophy guides it in addressing — or whether to address — current pet food trends. These include natural, high meat and protein, grain-free, by-product free and others. For each case, Biourge presented studies that he and his colleagues believe refute some of the concepts, myths and perceptions behind the trends and why they believe Royal Canin’s formulations are better for dogs and cats.

Not everyone or every pet food company agrees with that approach, and I think that’s OK. I remember attending a seminar on pet food myths during Global Pet Expo a few years ago and hearing Bret Deardorff, D.V.M., senior manager of veterinary customer affairs for Hill’s Pet Nutrition, say that one of the key questions pet retailers and pet owners should ask of a pet food manufacturer is, do you have a nutritional philosophy?

Hopefully, the answer is yes, and that all product development flows from that philosophy, which then gets translated in the pet food brand’s marketing and communications (and not the other way around, ideally). Of course, communicating a philosophy to consumers can be a challenge, particularly if it seems contrary to what they’re reading on the internet or hearing from so-called experts, or if it bucks current trends.

To communicate its philosophy, Royal Canin has chosen to invest more in educating professionals such as veterinarians, breeders and retailers, Moutault said, and not focus as much on consumer marketing, though social media is playing a more important role by necessity. Yet no matter the medium or audience, the message is about cat and dog nutrition and science, he emphasized. “Animals don’t speak, so we have to let the science speak.”




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