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Petfood Forum Reveals Industry’s Leading Challenges


(All photos) John Grossman, Images Photographics, courtesy of Petfood Forum

Petfood Forum, which took place April 23-25 in Kansas City, Mo., covered a wide range of topics, with speakers discussing everything from clean-label trends and food safety to how diet alters the intestinal microbiota of pets and using alternative protein ingredients such as dried yeast or insects in pet food, but one theme stood out.

“If we have any one theme this year, it’s around transparency with consumers,” said Debbie Phillips-Donaldson, editor-in-chief of Petfood Industry magazine, which is the organizer behind Petfood Forum, an annual meeting of pet food manufacturers, nutrition experts and key industry suppliers.

“Consumer expectation of transparency, which crosses over into so many areas: ingredients (including their sourcing), processing, the pet food label, marketing and communications, etc.,” she added, is among the weightiest issues facing pet food manufacturers in 2018.

Several speakers at the event addressed the subject of transparency and what it means to pet food shoppers.

In a session titled “Why is pet food surrounded by secrecy? The quest for transparency,” Henriette Bylling, CEO of Denmark-based Aller Petfood Group, spoke about how the relationship between pet food makers and consumers has changed over the years. Manufacturers used to simply reach out to pet owners through veterinarians, retailers and marketing campaigns.

“We had a very powerful position then—a position we can only dream of now,” Bylling said.

While these relationships remain, traditional pet food companies now face headwinds such as freelance writers, bloggers, online pet food forums, those who discourage the use of commercial pet foods and proponents of the raw diet, she said. 

Bylling urged pet food manufacturers to give skeptical consumers the information they need to make educated choices about pet food; otherwise, they will come to their own conclusions based on the myriad sources that are available to them—many of which contain false information.

“If we don’t make them able to make an informed choice, they will make up their own truths,” she said.

Larine Urbina, vice president of communications, U.S. and Canada, for Switzerland-based Tetra Pak, also spoke about manufacturers’ changing relationship with consumers in “Beyond millennials: reaching the connected pet food consumer.” Connected consumers, Urbina noted, spend four or more hours a day online, and they span generations.

“Consumers are able to get information how they want it, when they want it and where they want it, and that’s really changing the game,” she said.

Connected consumers view social media as substantially more believable than advertising (62 percent versus 38 percent), according to Tetra Pak Index 2017: The Connected Consumer, Urbina said. Consumers trust people who share their values, priorities and outlook on life. By connecting in meaningful ways via social media, brands can show that they share these traits as well, she said.

“Super leaders,” the most online involved of connected consumers, play a pivotal role in today’s consumer journey. According to the Tetra Pak survey, 57 percent of super leaders write reviews every week, 65 percent say they are more likely to comment after a positive experience and 78 percent expect a reply from brands.

With 3.6 billion connected consumers online, pet food manufacturers would be wise to act with more transparency and meaningfully engage in the world of connected pet food consumers, including using real people as brand advocates, Urbina said.

Another key factor affecting pet food makers in 2018 is channel disruption, said Phillips-Donaldson, “meaning not only the continuing rise of e-commerce, and how pet food companies can best manage their online business without alienating their core pet specialty retailer channel, but also the fact that many of the types of product features and label claims previously seen only in pet specialty have now migrated to the mass market and, with some brands, are doing quite well there.”

In “My pets eat better than me,” Natasha Davis, client service manager for market research firm GfK, noted channel expansion as one of the most impactful events of the previous year, with Blue Buffalo now selling some of its products to retailers such as Target and Kroger, Rachael Ray Nutrish, the “darling” of grocery, jumping into pet specialty, and even Walmart offering premium food. 
With premium pet food being found across channels these days, Davis said some pet food companies are rebranding to stand out.

“If you’re in a space that is 71 percent natural, what is natural?” she asked. 

She cited Halo, Purely for Pets’ “The proof is in the poop” messaging and Nature’s Variety’s Instinct brand’s logo, which touts “The raw brand” as new ways companies are differentiating themselves within the natural space.

Davis highlighted established and emerging categories in 2017, including “kibble plus”—kibble that is part freeze dried or part dehydrated—with 69.5 percent year-over-year (YOY) growth, dehydrated meals, with 53.3 percent YOY growth, freeze-dried meals, at 31.8 percent YOY growth, meal enhancers, with 24.5 percent YOY growth, grain free, experiencing 10 percent YOY growth, and natural, at 1.5 percent YOY growth, according to GfK.

With increasing competition and growing consumer needs, including convenience, quality, transparency and value, “pet specialty will continue to evolve,” Davis said.

​Petfood Forum Goes Wild with Jack Hanna 

Attendees of Petfood Forum had more than their share of serious discussions on the industry’s leading issues and concerns on topics such as food safety and transparency. They also had ample time to make productive connections and network. But before attendees got down to business, keynote speaker Jack Hanna, the star of “Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild,” delighted them with tales of adventure and some very special guests.

Hanna regaled attendees with stories from his long career in conservation, from the touching, such as his visit to Rolling Dog Farm in New Hampshire, which rescues and cares for disabled animals, to the humorous, such as the time he became stuck to a camel’s rear end on the “Late Show with David Letterman.” Hanna brought a sizeable menagerie of animals with him from the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio, where he is director emeritus. Attendees were schooled on the unique features of the Asian small-clawed otter, palm civet, echidna, cheetah and more, and afterward, they had the opportunity to pet some of the animals.

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