Pet owners are aware that diets with all-natural ingredients have a lot of benefits for dogs, and they want to give their pets the best.
"With today’s consumers treating their pets as an integral member of their family, they become invested in finding the best products to help them thrive, and that usually starts with their diet," said Patrick McGarry, COO of Gott Pet Products, the parent company of pet food maker Hound & Gatos.
Demand for natural dog foods is strong, according to Kathleen McCarron, top dog at Portland Pet Food Co. in Portland, Ore.
"Sales of natural and organic pet food in the United States were forecast to reach approximately 6.8 billion U.S. dollars by 2019," McCarron said. "This is an estimated increase of around 3 billion U.S. dollars since 2012."
Natural diets are capturing a large slice of sales in the pet food category. However, the industry lacks an official definition of "natural foods," which often means manufacturers and pet specialty retailers are creating their own criteria for what constitutes a natural pet food.
"In terms of pet food, we define a food [as] natural if it does not have artificial preservatives or coloring or any chemically synthesized ingredients," said Marni Lewis, owner and manager of The Green K9, a pet store in Urbana, Md. "In our shop, we take it a step further and promote foods that are not only certified organic and free of pesticides, but are free of wheat, corn and soy and are ethically sourced, non-GMO, antibiotic and hormone free, and humanely raised."
Staff members at The Green K9 work to educate customers that just because a food says "natural" on the label, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a healthful, quality food, Lewis added.
Kim McCohan, chief happiness officer at Bend Pet Express, which has two locations in Bend, Ore., agreed with Lewis’ take on natural.
"The bag may have the word ‘natural’ huge on the front, but … any dog food that has any synthetic vitamins or minerals can’t be ‘natural’ anymore," McCohan said.
Portland Pet Food Co. defines a natural food as one that has not gone through a chemical form of processing, McCarron said. The company uses a combination of organic ingredients and natural ones that are cooked in small batches and not highly processed, McCarron added.
Small-batch foods, like many other natural pet foods, often come with a higher price tag. However, Lewis finds that consumers are willing to pay a higher price for health.
"Customers come into our store seeking natural, high-quality pet foods and expect the products to be a higher cost," she said.
While The Green K9’s customers aren’t asking specifically for organic dog food, they do want natural food, and they’re pleasantly surprised that many of The Green K9’s high-quality foods are the same price as brands from chain stores, Lewis added.
Made With Human-Grade Ingredients
Natural dog food manufacturers are incorporating more human-grade ingredients into the new foods they are bringing to market.
Portland Pet Food Co., a manufacturer based in Portland, Ore., creates products made with wholesome, human-grade ingredients, said top dog Kathleen McCarron—and its newest offering is no exception.
"We will introduce a salmon meal in 2020 for dogs that is made with human-grade Northwest salmon that is high in omega 3s," McCarron said. "Most dog food is made with salmon that is chum, keta or pink that offers less omega 3s and is not typically consumed in the human food chain."
The Honest Kitchen in San Diego is also passionate about providing human-grade foods to pets. According to Carmen Velasquez, vice president of marketing, the company’s Whole Food Clusters is "the first 100 percent human-grade dry [pet] food" available on the market.
"This food is made in our own human-grade kitchen with lots of love and without compromise," she said. "We cold press, slow roast and dehydrate each bite to maintain the taste and nutrition of whole foods. It’s extremely palatable and even smells like real food!"
Hound & Gatos recently launched a natural dry dog food, too.
"The line includes three grain-free options, as well as two formulas made with ancient grains," said Patrick McGarry, COO of St. Francis, Wis.-based Gott Pet Products, the parent company of Hound & Gatos. "Each recipe is prepared with over 84 percent animal protein and super-nutritious eggs, which are considered to be 100 percent digestible, so none of the protein goes to waste."
Nailing Down Natural
Creating the ideal assortment of organic dog food can be a tricky balance for some retailers.
"The term ‘natural’ is so broad that we could consider everything in our store to fall under that heading," said Aquila Brown, owner and manager of The Yuppy Puppy, which has two locations in Washington. "We don’t sell products containing corn, wheat, soy, byproducts or ingredients from China. We only sell premium and super-premium lines of food, so how else is ‘natural’ defined? We sort our store from back to front, least favorite to most favorite for us, which generally means least expensive foods live farthest from the front desk."
At The Green K9 in Urbana, Md., the focus is on both product and price diversity.
"We emphasize minimally processed foods and have less of an assortment of dry foods and more of gently cooked, freeze-dried, dehydrated and wet foods," said owner and manager Marni Lewis.
According to Lewis, the ideal assortment doesn’t focus on many different brands. Shelf space is limited, and customers tend to get overwhelmed when they’re presented with too many choices. So The Green K9 chooses a few key brands, and then carries a variety of flavor and pricing options within those brands.
"We focus on offering a diverse selection of products to enhance dry food," Lewis said. "For the customer that wants to feed healthy, but not break the bank, we carry brands that fit their budget and don’t sacrifice quality for affordability."
3 Strategies to Market Natural Dog Diets
Without one set definition of "natural" as it pertains to dog foods, a big part of the job of selling these products is marketing and educating consumers about offerings in this category. Three companies share their best strategies for getting natural dog diets in front of customers.
1. Utilize Technology
"We have an iPad at our counter that we use to look up the foods customers are currently feeding on dogfoodadvisor.com," said Marni Lewis, owner and manager of The Green K9, a pet store in Urbana, Md. "This site allows us to quickly show customers what ingredients are in their food and in what percentages. It’s a good tool to highlight unnatural and red-flag ingredients that are in their pet’s food. We can then show them the ingredients in our brands and give them free food samples."
2. Entertain and Educate
"We do monthly newsletters and daily Facebook posts. We generally focus our nutrition posts to our newsletters rather than social media," said Aquila Brown, owner and manager of The Yuppy Puppy, which has two locations in Washington. "In our experience, social media users are looking for quick, scroll-past entertainment rather than honest, educational posts, so we reserve those to direct marketing to their inbox, although we do cross-post our newsletters to social media on Twitter and Facebook for clients interested in delving deeper. We have also had some success in offering videos on Facebook and YouTube on different nutritional subjects."
3. Get Social
"We’re extremely active on social media and often collaborate with stores for giveaways and content," said Carmen Velasquez, vice president of marketing at The Honest Kitchen, a pet food manufacturer in San Diego. "We also have a sophisticated email marketing platform—most emails that we send to our customers contain a geo-populated list of local stores to help increase foot traffic to brick-and-mortar retailers."