There is a nasty fight going on in the pet food category, which brings up the question of whether retailers should take sides when brands squabble.
Specifically, an up and coming pet food brand called Blue Buffalo has been touting its ingredients and comparing them to the ingredients in Nestle Purina products, among others. Unsurprisingly, Nestle Purina isn't happy with that — so much so that they have sued Blue Buffalo. (If you want to get a customized view of what this squabble is all about, click here and scroll to the bottom of the page to use the "compare brands" feature.)
This is a bit of a David and Goliath story, as Purina has been in the pet food business for 120 years and, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, controls about one-third of the pet food category in the U.S. Blue Buffalo was started in the early 2000's, but appears to be growing rapidly.
The nastiness back and forth is more intense because the U.S. pet food category generates $20 billion in revenue annually, according to the Bloomberg Businessweek story, and consumers have increasingly been treating pets like true family members. So, in short, ingredient claims matter. The founder of Blue Buffalo, Bill Bishop, did well as a founder of SoBe and decided to start a pet food company with high quality ingredients while his dog Blue battled cancer.
Bishop analyzed the market, commissioned research, worked with vets, and introduced pet food with expensive and "natural" ingredients, along with extra nutrients. In-store representatives, outside investment, internet and TV ads helped Blue Buffalo break through the clutter.
Some of Blue's advertising is targeted at large manufacturers and compares ingredients, giving the impression that Blue Buffalo has "natural" ingredients such as meat, vegetables and fruit, while the products of large competitors contain yucky sounding stuff like chicken necks, feet and intestines. With the premium pet food market growing to over $10 billion in sales from less than $5 billion in 2000, no manufacturer wants to be taken to task about their ingredients.
Purina has aggressively defended its pet food, showcasing its labs and headquarters to reporters and having an outside lab test its food to show it doesn't contain some of the nastier ingredients Blue Buffalo claimed in its ads. Purina alleges that Blue's products contain some byproducts, in any event. Purina has noted that it makes all its own food, whereas Blue outsources theirs to contract manufacturers. And now, both sides have lawyered up and are ready for a bigger fight.
Purina, meanwhile, defends ingredients such as corn, which has come under criticism of late, but has recently introduced a new line of natural pet food called Purina Beyond, which does not have corn, wheat, soy, poultry by-products, artificial flavors, artificial colors or preservatives.
Do consumers rely on retailers to make sure that quality claims made by brands sold in their stores are truthful?