Which pet food claims and features should brands track?

The phrase “no artificial flavors or colors” has been a popular claim in pet food for more than a decade now, to the point where it is almost accepted that pet foods contain no such ingredients. In fact, this kind of “free of” claim seems to have been overshadowed by others like non-GMO, gluten-free (somewhat inexplicable for pets), and the mother of them all, grain-free. (Even if this juggernaut takes a hit from the FDA’s DCM investigation/disaster.)

Thus, it is strange that a recent analysis from NielsenIQ describes the “free of artificial flavors” claim as a missed opportunity for pet food brands. The context, it seems, is that it appeared as a commonly searched claim or trait for pet products on Amazon.com from Spring 2020 to Summer 2021, although this specific trait did not appear on a chart from NiesenIQ showing the largest increases in searches. On the e-commerce giant. Those were for low-calorie, frozen, “diabetes support,” seafood ingredients, and organic pet foods.

‘Free of’: Big market, but outdated as pet food claims?

An anonymous NielsenIQ analyst frames the “no artificial flavors” claim as an example of “a golden opportunity to translate consumers’ increasingly defined health and wellness standards for their pets into more personalized offerings, simply by claiming properties that shoppers are actually looking for.”

In other words, according to this theory, pet food brands can attract more consumer attention, and possibly sales, by using this “free of” claim. “Only 28% of pet products make a claim to be ‘free of artificial flavors,’ but 94% of the products in the space actually qualify for that claim,” the blog post states. “With more robust product attribute data that can drive claims on the packaging, eligible products can avoid getting caught up in online searches and overlooking in-store searches, and missing out on millions of dollars in the $5.5 billion ‘artificial flavor-free’ space.”

It is true that $5.5 billion represents a significant market segment, although there is no context or other information provided for this data point. However, given how focused today’s pet owners are on the health and wellness of their pets – a constantly growing trend for several years now – I think this example may be somewhat outdated or simple.

Six years ago, in 2015, “free of artificial ingredients” ranked fifth among the selected “free of” claims put forth by the packaged facts of US dog and cat owners about whether they were checked out when shopping for pet food. Not surprisingly, the grain-free/gluten-free combined is in the lead; However, only 19% of dog owners and 15% of cat owners rated it a tie. Non-GMO came second for dog owners (19%) and tied for third place with free maize for cat owners (13%), with no fillers/by-products coming in second for cat owners (17%) and tied for third with Maize. Free for dog owners (18%). Only 15% of dog owners and 12% of cat owners said the “lack of artificial ingredients” was an attraction.

In July 2020, in a similar rating of pet food attributes from Packaged Facts, “no artificial flavors” were not on the menu.

The point of entry, not a pet food discriminator

Again, I believe the lack of artificial flavors or colors in pet food has become an expectation, even an entry point, rather than a differentiating factor for consumers or brands. Thus, 94% of pet products qualify to make such a claim, according to NielsenIQ. With space for claims on a premium on pet food packaging and online product pages, given all the other information required as well as terms and images geared to capture consumers’ attention and imagination, I can understand why most pet food brands choose to prioritize other types of claims.

As NielsenIQ’s analysis points out, consumers are increasingly becoming “conscious pet parents,” a mindset that the pandemic has further exacerbated. However, pet owners’ concern for the health and well-being of their pets is nothing new; Nor is humanizing “the application of human wellness standards when shopping for their furry friends.” Perhaps this analyst at NielsenIQ needs to catch up with today’s sophisticated pet owners (and the pet food market).

The analyst’s secondary point – that pet food brands should know and pay attention to the attributes of pet products that pet owners search online – seems valid. So, it makes sense to pay attention to the terms that got the biggest increases from April 2020 to March 2021: low-calorie, frozen ingredients, seafood, and organic pet food. It’s hard to know exactly what the term “diabetes support” means, but it’s likely an important clue that more pet owners are concerned about their pets developing or living with diabetes.

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