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Petfood Forum Puts Latest Trends in Focus


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Richard Rockhill, executive vice president of Lucy Pet Products, and George C. Fahey Jr., professor emeritus of animal sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Kansas City, Mo., is considered by many to be the hub of the global pet food manufacturing industry, so fittingly, it was chosen again as the host city for Petfood Forum, which was held April 3 to 5 and marked its 25th anniversary this year. The event took place at the landmark Kansas City Convention Center, and more than 2,700 pet food industry professionals from more than 30 countries converged to hear motivational keynotes, attend educational classes and breakout sessions, and participate in some lively networking.

The inner workings of the pet food industry have become a topic of great interest among consumers and pet specialty retailers alike since the pet food recalls of 2007—and virtually every recall since then. As a result, much of the pet food industry has been highly focused on food safety. 

Chris Mondzelewski, general manager of pet specialty for Mars Petcare North America in Franklin, Tenn., pointed out that the company’s research indicates some 65 percent of consumers consider safety first when buying a product.

Other product attributes that rank as top concerns for today’s pet owners include nutrition, palatability, eye appeal and limited ingredients, just to name a few. Consider the fact that 72 percent of U.S. pet owners choose better nutrition as the top reason for purchasing natural or organic pet foods, according to Packaged Facts, a publisher of market research in the food, beverage consumer packaged goods and demographic sectors.

One of the key attractions at Petfood Forum 2017 was the Petfood Innovation Workshop. Dozens of attendees piled in to four luxury buses for the 40-minute drive to the Kansas State University-Olathe campus to take part in an interactive workshop. Participants were separated into six teams and rotated through various stations that included games such as Pet Family Feud, which tested their knowledge of consumer perceptions about food. There was also a Palatability Myth Buster challenge, plus tests of the various senses: smelling for flavors and oxidation, tasting smoke flavors, and examining texture and crunch. 

A number of hot topics were discussed at the forum in concurrent sessions, including some that would be of interest to the retail sector, such as the science behind biologically appropriate pet diets, working novel ingredients into pet food formulations and buying trends among the various customer demographics. 

As is the case in any consumer-driven industry, the customer is king, and that sentiment was evident across the board in a number of vendor booths, breakout sessions and general talks. The buying power of certain demographics in particular was top of mind, particularly, baby boomers and millennials drive the lion share of the market. It is their tastes and concerns that influence pet food manufacturers. 

One of the marketing sessions, led by Bob Wheatley, founder and CEO of Emergent, a marketing, communications and business consulting agency based in Chicago, revealed some interesting psychological insights that place U.S. millennial consumers—and how they think—at the center of pet food go-to-market strategies. The most current data shows that millennials only recently edged out baby boomers in buying power because of sheer volume, and that more of them are delaying starting families longer than ever and choosing to have pets, Wheatley said. Whereas baby boomers have more disposable income to spend on premium product and will take the time to go into specialty pet stores and get educated about trends and brands, millennials look for bargains online, yet they have the same discriminating attitude about what’s best for their pets.

The opening and closing keynote speakers were among the who’s who of their respective fields, and were the highlight of the three-day event. Randi Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Zuckerberg Media and the sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, kicked off Petfood Forum 2017 with an opening address on how to use social media and other marketing platforms to reach today’s consumers. She should know, as she created and ran Facebook’s pioneering marketing program from its beginning in 2005 until 2011. 

The closing keynote speaker, the extraordinarily gifted Temple Grandin, Ph.D., was hard-hitting and engaging. Diagnosed as autistic as a child, Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, spoke about animal behavior and the importance for pet professionals to know about animal behavior and what responses to expect. She is the author of several books, and a number of films have documented her life.

For a more in-depth recap of Petfood Forum 2017, go to wattglobalmedia.com.

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