Marketing best practice is defined by dialing your product concept and brand positioning sufficiently to the right or left of center that an entirely new category is created. A category that you own and thus can define as state of the art, creating a unique opportunity to be No. 1 in a new business segment. By making this type of bold move, a challenger brand can radically differentiate itself in an otherwise mesmerizing “sea of sameness” among all-too-common, familiar pet brand propositions.
Of course, category creation comes with unique challenges related to pioneering a new idea in the face of consumer behavior that is systemically wired against accepting any perceived risk. Habit purchase is a useful condition for incumbent brands and a task for new category creators.
Boulder-based Bond Pet Foods is fresh off capturing $17.5 million in a recent Series A funding round. The company represents a vanguard of an entirely new, more sustainably made, novel solution to pet nutrition that steps away entirely from animal-based ingredients. Can this new proposition succeed –– while also answering the challenges of creating a new category?
Here we interview Rich Kelleman, founder and CEO of Bond Pet Foods, who characterizes his business model as the “future alt. meat makers” for the pet food industry. Following the Q&A, we’ll bring insights on what all this means to your business.
Q: How does the pet food industry currently contribute to global warming impacts? Is it serious enough to warrant wholesale changes?
Kelleman: Absolutely. Dogs and cats are voracious consumers of animal proteins. However, studies show that the production of meat and meat by-products for their consumption has an oversized impact on the environment. If America’s 163 million dogs and cats were their own country, their consumption of meat products would rank fifth in the world. Up to 30 percent of meat production’s negative effects [land, water, energy use] can be attributed to satiating this demand.
Q: Can pet food be made sustainably? What’s the best path to lowering carbon emissions in pet food production?
Kelleman: While packaging, production and logistics/transport are important areas that need to be addressed, the resource and carbon intensity of what goes into the bag –– specifically a food’s foundational proteins –– contribute significantly to a product’s ultimate environmental footprint and sustainability credentials.
Q: Can you explain how precision fermentation proteins are made?
Kelleman: Precision fermentation technology has been used for more than half a century to make everything from enzymes for cheese production to lactic acid to vitamin B12. We are reassembling the process to make high quality meat proteins that can be the foundation of pet food recipes.
In Bond’s case, this approach involves combining a sample of chicken DNA (chicken is first in our protein pipeline), collected in a cruelty-free way, with baker’s yeast. Like craft brewing, we then put this strain of yeast in a fermentation tank and feed it natural sugar, vitamins and minerals. Within 48 hours the brewed chicken is harvested at peak fermentation for optimal flavor and nutrition, gently dried and ground into a powder that’s a versatile addition to any dry or wet food recipe.
Q: For decades consumers have been taught that high protein, high quality animal-based ingredients constitute the reference standard for a superior pet diet. How will you mitigate perceived risks and answer inherent skepticism over a radically new diet that doesn’t rely on animal sources for protein nutrition?
Kelleman: Our meat proteins are naturally identical to those conventionally harvested on farms and fields. They have a complete essential amino acid profile for foundational dog and cat nutrition.
When we enter the market (2024 target), we will have robust feeding trial data [peer-reviewed] to demonstrate our proteins’ performance, safety and efficacy, and we’ll be working with our strategic pet food manufacturing partners to educate and excite key stakeholders including the veterinary community, retail and wholesale buyers and the general public about this more responsible way to feed and nourish our pets.
Q: You are in effect pioneering an entirely new category in pet nutrition. What are some of the biggest challenges you face in creating this new space, and how will you convince pet parents this is a better option?
Kelleman: Food is deeply personal for people, including what they choose to feed their furry family members. With that, it’s natural that a new and novel way to meat creation will be met with inherent skepticism. Because of this, Job One is to demystify the process, make it relatable and operate under full transparency to provide comfort and build trust, along with showcasing the real nutritional, social and environmental benefits of our approach.
Q: How important is sustainability messaging to your overall education strategy? Why do you believe pet parents will resonate to a climate friendly proposition?
Kelleman: It is a critical piece of our education strategy. Sustainability is increasingly becoming an important factor in pet parents’ purchase decisions –– especially among Millennials and Gen Z –– as noted in numerous industry surveys and evidenced by the multitude of new products and claims that are proliferating in the market today.
Q: How should the pet industry answer growing calls for transparency around emissions and carbon footprint?
Kelleman: Encouraging more manufacturers to audit all aspects of their product portfolio’s supply chain (protein/ingredients, production, packaging and logistics) for carbon and resource intensity. Ideally using an independent third party, it would be a great step forward, along with a commitment for continuous improvement.
Q: What does the future look like for the pet food industry, knowing we are faced with climate challenges and potential related disruptions in the ingredient supply chain from droughts, floods and wars?
Kelleman: I believe we’re at the beginning of a renaissance in pet nutrition. Over the next decade new technologies will pave the way to produce foundational proteins and ingredients in a more sustainable way while delivering a greater degree of supply chain security. Brewed meat proteins are just the start.
To reap the benefits of new category creation, best practices include:
Clarification: Refinement of brand positioning using the foundational brand archetype tool as a reference guide.
Education: Creating a new brand narrative utilizing nomenclature designed to help pet parents understand the nutritional bona fides of a different approach to proteins.
Marketing: Integrating ‘brand higher purpose’ strategy with a comprehensive commitment to sustainability readiness as a part of the brand story and messaging strategy.
Messaging: Driving this through all touch points from web site to packaging to social channel and outbound communication.
New category creation is an essential component of sound strategy that helps brands achieve radical differentiation while elevating their better offering above the competition. It immediately improves the distinctiveness of your brand story and provides an avenue for breaking through the clutter to be seen as a meaningfully different, improved option.
Given the historical focus on high quality proteins in the pet food industry, adoption of a new, more sustainable path to protein creation poses a more radical zig to every other brand’s zag on the important path to memorability and remarkable-ness. The industry would be well-advised to watch Bond closely as it begins to scale manufacturing, knowing pet parents are desperately looking for a way to exercise their desire for more sustainable choices in the pet foods they buy.
Robert Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Emergent can help pet brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity and deeper meaning in their pet parent relationships and brand communication.