What Should I Feed My Pet? Don't Let Marketing Confuse You

Pet Food on Shelf

Many of our clients and some veterinarians report great confusion when buying or recommending pet foods for healthy pets. The bewildering number of foods and the claims made for them can cause people’s heads to spin. Much of the confusion can be cleared up by understanding the way these products are marketed.

The goal of marketing is to increase the profit of the company — this is the “American way” that has made us so successful. Marketing consists of offering consumers products with attributes that specifically appeal to the customer. The appeal may be to a practical need or to the customer’s ethics, philosophy, etc. Certain attributes, such as “cleaner,” “whiter,” “fresher,” “cheaper,” etc., may be directly observable. Other product attributes, like “natural” or “organic,” may not be so easy to verify, and ingredient attributes, such as “grain free” or “real meat” (beef, chicken and related ingredients), are marketed with the implication that these attributes will lead to a desired outcome.

Premium Isn’t Always Better

Some $19 billion reportedly was spent on pet food in 2012, an increase of more than 50 percent since 2000, despite the intervening recession. Another social phenomenon that has occurred over the past decade or two is the increasing change in perception of cats and dogs from “pets” to “family members,” particularly in more affluent households. Packaged Facts recently estimated that about 10 percent of the pet food sold in the U.S. is “super premium” (defined as priced 20 percent or more above the category average), and 30 percent is “mass premium” (priced 10 to 20 percent above the category average).1 Note that the definition of “premium” was based on the price rather than any proof of higher nutritional quality of the diet, let alone performance (meaning some measurable indicator of health or well-being) of any pets fed the food.

Pet food purchasing decisions result from a complex sequence of influences. These include internal influences, such as consumers’ individual knowledge, attitudes (philosophical, political, ethical), personality, lifestyle, etc. External influences (culture, group affiliation, life situation) also play a role, as do various marketing influences, such as the attributes ascribed to the product, promotional materials, price and level of service provided by the manufacturer.

Given the competition for consumer dollars and the profitability of pet food, it should come as no surprise that some of the largest consumer products companies in the world make pet foods, as shown in the table below:

Where pet food comes from

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