What’s Next for Pet Food Marketing?

The inevitable pursuit of healthy lifestyle integration

We can all agree that premium pet food is one of the strongest business stories in packaged food growth — it’s been a consistent revenue engine over the last 10 years.

A consequence of continued growth and expansion this year is a 52 percent increase in the number of brands competing in the U.S. pet specialty retail channel, now at a shelf-busting 599 combatants, according to industry research from GFK.

This led to a whopping 2,880 new products launched in the past year competing for share of wallet, up 12 percent over the previous season. During the last five years dollar sales in the natural category have grown from $6.2 billion to $7.9 billion. There’s lots of marketing action, as well as subsequent noise in the pet food game.

The fuel steering this expansion is a humanization movement that awards pets full-fledged family member status. Pet food follows this trend almost lockstep with diet formula premiumization leaning into higher quality, better ingredient options — the similarity to what’s now holding court in the human food world is striking.

  • Case in point: the protein-forward, popular grain-free segment is up 20.2 percent, and now enjoys a 37 percent share of the entire natural category — delivering $3 billion in annual sales. The biggest single driver in this story today is kibble laced with freeze-dried raw bits now at $143 million in sales and gaining — a sort of trial entry pathway to ultra-premium raw frozen diets.

Yet, a stroll through the aisles in pet food stores reveals a remarkable level of resemblance and sameness in how brands present themselves, touting their ingredient strategies and more specifically data on protein delivery. Ironically, all of this rational, fact-based selling occurs in a product category powered by emotional cues — not analytical.

What’s next?

Is this business accelerated solely by extensions of product form? Is it just a human-grade ingredient play? Are we simply trading up diets from formulations at $3.00 a pound to something approaching $10 or $11?

Price increases per pound are up 40 percent for pet food since 2011, and up 67 percent in the treat business, according to GFK. So it may come as no surprise that private label and value priced brands in the segment have been outpacing premium brand growth over the last four years.

Ingredient cost and price issues aside, while the category as a whole continues its upward trajectory, the next evolution in pet food marketing may still be in the wings. And itself may represent another crossover from the human food world to pet.

Wellness Lifestyle Integration

Pets moved from the barnyard to the backyard to inside the house to the bedroom in relatively short order as people increasingly treat their pets like kids. Emotional bonds and companionship are reliable, tangible anchors for pet owner benefit — in an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world.

The emotional grist is already in place.

There’s been a significant and transformative cultural shift in the human food world as consumers connect the dots between the quality of what they consume and the quality of their lives — this expectation has migrated to pet wellbeing.

Healthy is now driving food retail growth, but it’s vital to note “health” has been culturally redefined in the process. What was once addition by subtraction, meaning better for you was essentially a food science exercise designed to remove calories, sodium, fats and sugars, has morphed. Now, in its place is addition by addition.

Healthier is the integration of fresh, less processed, local, real food, ethically-sourced and made — an elevated quality story summed up as, “I want higher quality food experiences to go along with my higher quality lifestyle.”

  • Can pet ownership and relationship be an integral part of a healthy lifestyle? And thus does this companion relationship become part of enhancing the quality of life going both directions — for pet and pet parent?

We have seen numerous studies over the last five years documenting a relationship between pet ownership and health benefits for people. Just the act of petting your dog or cat alone is shown to lower heart rates and decrease stress. So a virtuous ecosystem might exist here as pet and pat parent in effect take care of each other, providing emotional and physical benefits that are reciprocal.

This brings a whole new lens to pet ownership benefits and suggests a higher calling for the connection that goes beyond the tail wag or purr. What’s the call to action for pet food brands?

  • Answer: become an enabler, facilitator, coach and guide on this journey to health and wellbeing for pets and pet parents alike.

This approach offers salience and relevance, and a treasure trove of creative opportunity for pet brands to differentiate and stand out in a sea of brown kibble uniformity.

True lifestyle marketing may be an anomaly in pet food now, but the signs point to a real need for disruption and uniqueness in a category rife with messaging and marketing that — pound for pound is nearly identical between brands (nod to wolf ancestry theme).

Editor’s note: Emergent CEO Bob Wheatley will be presenting at the 2017 Petfood Forum convention in Kansas City, next April 4 and 5. His topic will be “Activating the New Psychology of Pet Food Marketing: Millennials lead the pack in pet parent shopping behaviors.”