ORLANDO, Fla. - Understanding what is driving the pet food market is essential to keeping a brand portfolio relevant. Human food trends are emerging into the pet food arena twice as fast today as they have in the past, said Eric Huston, marketing director natural dry dog business, Mars Pet Nutrition North America, Franklin, Tenn.  Understanding how the human food trends translate and apply to pet diets is key Mr. Huston explained during a presentation at the Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Fla.

Humanization is not something new but it’s the mega trend that continues to drive pet food especially the natural pet food category. Natural pet food is now an $8.2 billion category, Mr. Huston said. Humanization is defining how processors think about and innovate food for pets. What is on trend for a pet owner’s eating habits needs to be on trend for the pet, and these trends are moving from human foods to pet foods at a much faster pace.

Mars Petcare has tracked how pet food trends have emerged over time. In the past, trends would cascade out of the human world into independent pet stores, reach critical mass at the independent pet store level and flow into the big-box pet stores of the world. After more time and reaching critical mass at the big-box, pet-store level, trends emerged in mass channel retailers like Walmart.

An example of this is the grain-free trend. In 2011, only 0.1% of sales in the mass market were grain-free. Today, 20% of sales in the mass market are grain-free. “Grain-free has become a half-a-billion-dollar subcategory in five or six years,” Mr. Huston said. “At Mars Petcare, we track this stuff over time. In the past, it’s happened over five, six or seven years. What we’re seeing now is it’s happening in a year and a half to two years. It’s accelerating at a massive, massive pace.”

Package of Mars Petcare Crave brandWhat’s driving this pace? Ecommerce for one. “Ecommerce is now 12% of category sale and 93% of growth,” Mr. Huston explained. “The pet care category from an ecommerce stand point is out pacing ecommerce in general by 380%. The pet category is out pacing the general move to ecommerce.”

Another contributing factor are millennials. Millennials have $3.4 trillion spending power. As a group, they’re more focused on pets than ever before and demand information and product immediately which is driving trend acceleration.

Brands can no longer sit back and scout out what trends are moving across the funnel from pet specialty stores into big-box pet stores and finally into the mass markets. “We’ve come to realize we can’t just be a scout. We have to be on the forefront of trends because it’s not taking five to seven years. Within a year or two of emerging, trends are in the mass market,” Mr. Huston said. “To stay relevant, we need to be clear on what is emerging in the human food trends and then how do they translate into pet food trends.”

Mr. Huston cautioned that human food philosophies don’t translate one-to-one into the pet food arena. Mars Petcare has learned to run the human trend though a “dog insight.” It is critical to be on the forefront of human trends but each trend needs to go through a “dog filter” according to Huston. The paleo diet was the forerunner to the ancestral subcategory within pets. Wholesome, natural ingredients are called ingredient transparency as a pet food philosophy. The elimination diet for humans was the forerunner to limited ingredient diets for pets; and Mars Petcare believes the rise of the foodie culture — food as an experience — is going to give rise to a food philosophy in the pet world that the company calls culinary. Culinary’s ideal in pet food is about great experiences, not having to make trade-offs between enjoyment and health.

“Being on the forefront of how we think about these food philosophies in the pet food market allows us to remain relevant with the portfolios that we create with the brands we’re managing,” Mr. Huston said.


As human trends rapidly emerge and mold into pet food applications, processors are under pressure to quickly adapt. Mars Petcare has responded by completely reimagining its natural dry dog food portfolio over the last 24 months. “We re-staged Nutro. We moved it to the mass market around feed-clean positioning. Non-GMO is a critical staple of that and we know clean eating is a journey. The bar will continue to raise. We all raise the bar for our own food philosophies and we need to be doing the same for pets, and that’s what you’ll see us doing with Nutro,” Mr. Huston explained.

Package of Mars Petcare Wild Frontier brandMars Petcare responded to the ancestral, high-protein trend by inventing the Crave brand and brought it from initial concept to mass-market channels in just 8 months. As part of what Mars Petcare calls a more complex ancestral story around feeding true to the hunt, the company has reimagined its Wild Frontier brand. Knowing the trends are going to continue to work through the funnel from pet specialty to mass market, Wild Frontier addresses the more complex story that’s the top of the market focusing on high-protein around organs and meat blends.

In response to what Mars Petcare calls the culinary trend, the company will relaunch its Ultra brand this summer. Ultra is a brand positioned around superfood. Mars Petcare is moving the Ultra brand into a more culinary space with an upscale farm-to-table feel with a focus on pairings. The Ultra Ranch Plate offers beef, potato, spinach and parsley. Each recipe offers an herb pairing focused on both health and an enjoyable, culinary experience for pets.

Human food philosophy trends are the framework Mars Petcare uses to innovate and create its portfolio. With these trends emerging twice as fast as they have in the past from human food to pet food, brands today need to be quick and nimble to stay in front.

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