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All in the Family: Pets Get the Premium Food Treatment

We now sip our java next to dogs and cats. Strap FitBit-like devices around the necks of our best dog athletes, dress them up for trick-or-treating, and find puppy love through Tinder-style apps.

Our pets are no longer like family. They are family.

And big (human) food companies, like The J.M. Smucker Company, are catching on. The maker of Smucker’s fruit spreads, Folgers coffee, and Jif peanut butter recently acquired Big Heart Pet Brands, owners of Meow Mix and Milk-Bone. For J.M. Smucker, the acquisition doesn’t just represent enormous business opportunity, it expands the definition of its core customer base (i.e., families) from two legs to four. “It fits extremely well with our purpose of bringing families together to share memorable meals and moments,” said CEO Richard Smucker. “And one of the key parts of the family nowadays, and probably has been historically, is your family pet.”

Big Heart CEO David West agrees. Boomers and Millennials are perhaps the most valuable targets in today’s profitable pet food market. “In these households, pets are treated like members of the family, either replacing children for empty nest boomers or for some millennials, as they delay starting families,” he said. “Not too surprisingly, we feed our pets like we feed the rest of our families or often we feed them even better.”

As younger consumers, especially, desire all-natural over Yellow 5, big food companies must expand or alter their portfolios to keep pace with the rising demand for premium eats that are good for everyone in the family. A growing amount of customers are willing to pay a premium for premium foods – 29% of Millennials and 31% of Generation Z, according to the 2015 Nielsen Global Health & Wellness Survey – and it appears that this ethos is extending into the foods they feed their four-legged family members, too.

A study by Packaged Facts revealed that 68% of pet owners say they’re willing to spend more money on maintaining their pet’s wellness, and data from GfK points to recent accelerated growth in profitability from premium pet foods. Over the last four years, sales in the refrigerated and frozen pet food category have grown at 20% annually. And in the first eight months of 2014 alone, sales of freeze-dried, refrigerated, frozen, and gluten-free pet foods accounted for more than $566 million, more than double the total sales within the same timeframe in 2012 ($243 million).

As pet retailers embrace the changing role of the family-pet-turned-family-member, they’re finding more ways to win over pet owners. PetSmart, for example, is increasing its selection of independent natural dog and cat foods and is committed to meeting the evolving needs and preferences of “pet parents.” The superstore’s recent “Partners in Pethood” campaign demonstrates this brilliantly, giving us an anthro-pet-morphized chuckle in the process. “Most pet advertising focuses on images of happy pets running in fields,” said PetSmart Executive Vice President of Customer Experience, Phil Bowman. “The focus of this campaign is how happy pets make their pet parents.”

Outside of pet superstores, even a casual stroll down the pet food aisle at your local supermarket shows just how fierce the competition for the premium pet food buyer is; organic, gluten-free, all-natural, gourmet, raw, and even “human grade” foods pervade shelves and fridges and freezers. As traditional human food producers like J.M. Smucker focus on pet food and compete for market share with indie premium brands like Merrick and Blue Buffalo, and as retailers and brand advertisers seek new keys to unlock pet parents’ hearts, it’s critical that they remain in lockstep with pet owners – understanding how and why they are changing their pets’ diets, and what pet food innovations would encourage them to upgrade to ensure their pets remain healthy and happy members of the family for years to come.

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