This article first appeared on petfoodindustry.com.
To be successful with today’s pet parents, manufacturers and retailers need to keep up with consumers’ changing perceptions of what natural pet foods can do.
Many pet parents look to natural foods and treats because they imply the food is high quality, wholesome and nutritious. That being said, the perception of natural, and what natural means, has changed over time. While natural was once understood to mean the absence of synthetic materials, the all-inclusive term now covers everything from ingredients, format and sustainability.
“Customers are looking for more premium foods, with more premium claims,” says Kelly Walters, brand leader of pet food sales at Redbarn. “Ingredients they recognize, functional ingredients that serve a purpose in the pets’ nutrition, and no filler ingredients.”
Customers are also looking at more natural formats when it comes to their pet’s food, which means less kibble and more freeze-dried, frozen, fresh, air-dried or wet foods for meals and toppers.
“The shift to more premium foods and alternatives to kibble is driven by a desire to provide the best nutritional options for their pets,” Walters says. “Pet owners are looking for healthy food that their pets will consistently eat and enjoy.”
When searching for pet foods, many consumers seek out natural food solutions that are quick to prepare, healthy and offer variety. For its part, Nulo offers the Mix-It Meals Program, which provides a platform for promoting a wide assortment of natural products that can be used to enhance and customize a pet’s diet.
Of course, many customers bring the same standards they have for their own food and apply them when seeking out natural food for their pets.
“Pet owners who live a healthy, active lifestyle understand the importance of the food they choose for themselves, and they are applying the same or even greater level of care when choosing foods for their companions,” says Heather Acuff, PhD, director of research and development for Nulo. “This is partly driven by a clean-eating mindset and concerns for the potential negative impact some additives may have on the health of our pets.”
As a result of an extended lockdown and more bonding time with pets in 2020, pet parents are more driven to make sure their pets have natural, healthy food that addresses their pet’s specific needs.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has caused humans to focus more on self-care – eating healthier, exercising more, reduce stress etc.,” says Maria Lange, head of business intelligence for Earth Animal. “As with many human trends in the past, they often find their way into the pet world. Pet parents are likely looking for similarly healthy products for their pets to ensure best nutrition, energy and health.”
With the care to look more closely at how certain ingredients play a role in overall health, there’s a greater focus on life stage and breed-specific formulas. Other trends in this category include products that feature high quality protein and superfood ingredients, which can provide health benefits and support heart health, energy, weight management and gut health.
“Natural consumers expect the same solutions as conventional products with the added confidence that what they are putting into their pet’s bowl really is the best choice for their long-term health,” says Dr. Acuff.
One specific ingredient trend, Walters says, is a return to whole grains. That reflects a shift away from the grain-free trend and is driven by pet owners’ concerns about heart health. In 2018, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) announced it was investigating reports of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs that were eating grain-free food. In 2020 the FDA announced it concluded there was no scientific evidence that grain-free foods cause DCM.
However, grain diets continue to regain favor among consumers. “We’re seeing a shift in buying habits with customers seeking out grain-inclusive and whole grain products,” says Bryan Nieman, brand director for Fromm Family Foods. “This certainly does not mean customers are abandoning grain-free diets and grain-free continues to be an important mix in complete and balanced food offerings; however, the renewed demand for grains has sparked a growth pattern that has empowered brands like ours to continue developing grain-inclusive options for their customers.”
One result of the DCM controversy was focuses on transparency, says Ryan Yamka, PhD, co-founder of Guardian Pet Food Company, which makes NOBL canine bars. “People want ingredients they don’t have to Google,” Dr. Yamka says. The NOBL website also shows results from third party digestibility tests, a measure of how metabolizable the food is in dogs.
“We decided when we rebranded and re-launched NOBL last year at Global Pet we would be transparent on that,” Dr. Yamka says. “From a consumer standpoint, the main thing they want to know is they are feeding good food to their dogs.”
On top of ensuring food is of the highest quality for a pet’s health, more consumers today want to know that their pet’s food is good for the health of our planet, as well.
“We are continuing to see the growing trend of consumers seeking out pet food that is ethically and sustainably sourced,” says Andrew Tippin, brand advocacy and relationship manager for ZIWI USA. “All of ZIWI’s ingredients are ethically and sustainably sourced from our New Zealand farmers and produced in our family-owned kitchens, allowing us full control and transparency of our product from our farms to the customer’s bowl.”
As Tippin highlighted, sustainability is one of the major trend for the pet industry as a whole. If food is more bioavailable, the dog eliminates less waste, Dr. Yamka explains, and less waste in the backyard results in less waste runoff in the environment.
Another aspect of sustainability is packaging, and NOBL uses high-density polyethylene type 2 recyclable packaging, and uses digital printing. Consumers can use their local curbside recycling or store recycling programs to recycle the bags, which can eventually be made into dog houses, picnic tables and other items.
Given the importance of transparency and sustainability to consumers today, retailers can benefit from these natural trends by merchandising the right assortment of these foods. Susan Goldstein, who with Dr. Bob Goldstein is founder of Earth Animal, says stores should feature natural food products in categories, such as special brand story, sustainability, key ingredients and benefits of feeding the food.
On the other hand, natural foods can also be merchandised anywhere in the store, says Dr. Acuff, because they do not easily fit into a single category.
“For example, Nulo’s Freeze-Dried Raw recipes were designed to have small, nutritionally complete pieces that are easy to feed alone, mix with other foods, or even as a treat,” she says. It also helps to add clip-strips and end-caps within the kibble aisles to suggest a mixed feeding approach. She also suggests having clip strips in sections like outdoor pet gear, so that shoppers looking for backpacks and collapsible bowls will also find the foods. Another strategy is to offer in-store demos and offer samples.
“Retailers should encourage in-store feeding of their own animals and personal testimonial should be abundant,” Susan Goldstein says. “There is nothing more powerful than, ‘This is what I feed my dog or cat.’”
To be prepared to answer a plethora of consumer concerns, Dr. Yamka recommends that retailers ask manufacturers for information about the foods’ ingredients, digestibility and safety. “Do they have third party food safety certification, do they have food safety protocols in place, and do they follow them?” he says. “It’s educating them to ask the right questions.”
At the end of the day, educating pet parents and providing recommendations is always a good strategy for retailers to build and grow relationships.
“Customers are looking for complete meal and topper options that deliver on premium ingredients and good health,” says Walters. “It’s important for pet parents to have that local support that cares about their purchase decisions.”