Pet Care Products

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In the early 20th century, the U.S. pet supply industry consisted of small, largely regional manufacturers, distributors and retailers. Hartz Mountain, incorporated in 1926, became one of the first national companies in the business. It began importing and selling canaries from Germany and by the 1950s had achieved annual sales of $18 million from items such as bird food, aquariums and fish food.

Although other pet supply brands—including Tetra Fish Food, Ralston-Purina's Kitty Litter (eventually discontinued after its name became generic) and Kaytee, the largest supplier of bird and small animal food—established themselves in niches, Hartz Mountain grew to dominate the pet supply industry as a whole, ultimately offering 1,200 products, including everything from pet toys and shampoos to its best-selling flea collars. Hartz often was the only brand available in a pet store.

The company chose not to enter the dog and cat food market where there were strong existing brands sold through supermarkets. Since the 1930s, several food processors had marketed dog food. Armour had Dash, handled by Foote, Cone & Belding; Swift sold Pard, via J. Walter Thompson Co.; and General Foods had Gaines, which was at Benton & Bowles.

In the late 1950s, the dog and cat food market began to grow rapidly, with regional companies expanding nationally and new companies entering the market. In the late 1950s and early '60s, the pet food industry's average annual growth topped 10%, up from 5% per year after World War II, thanks to new product introductions and increasing pet ownership.

Purina introduced Dog Chow in 1957. Within 16 months, it became the market leader in dry dog food, with a share of more than 15%. The company put $3 million into advertising the launch, using the theme "Is your dog an eager eater?" and distributing 18 million coupons. Dog Chow's growth came at the expense of Gaines and its Gravy Train brand—which recovered somewhat through heavy advertising and its Gainesburger line extension—as well as Alpo and Ken-L-Ration.

In the cat food segment, Purina added Cat Chow in 1962, again backing the product with coupon ads as part of a campaign by Gardner Advertising Co. It earned a 17% market share within the year, mostly taken from Quaker Oats Co.'s Puss 'n Boots, which had a 70% pre-Cat Chow share and had been the market leader since 1950.

Despite the existence of these dominant companies, the pet food segment, like the pet supply market, was fragmented; some 3,000 brands were available across the U.S. by the early 1960s. One supermarket chain reported it carried 32 different brands of pet food. In addition, fewer than 50% of U.S. pets at the end of the decade were fed prepared foods at all, many eating family leftovers instead.

Development of the premium sector

The petcare industry came into its own in the 1970s. In the pet supply segment, Hartz had more than a 75% share by the end of the decade. In the dog and cat food sector, growth came both from new brands and from extensions of existing lines.

In the face of this product proliferation, marketers relied on advertising more than ever. In 1972, Purina launched a comparative newspaper campaign, directed against Alpo, emphasizing the relatively high nutrition and low price of Purina High Protein Dog Meal, and in 1979, it coordinated coupons for its entire pet line into a single "Circus of Savings" promotion.

Premium pet foods, introduced in the mid-1970s, were higher-fat, higher-protein, low-mineral, no-additive foods that were sold only in pet stores and veterinarians' offices. They included Science Diet, which has been the market leader since 1977, and its primary competitor, Iams. The premium sector continued to drive category growth through the 1980s, and premium brands started to appear in grocery stores, with Kal Kan's Pedigree (introduced in 1987) and Purina's O.N.E. (1988) among the leaders.

A major battle between leading advertisers developed in 1985, when Alpo filed suit against Purina, contending its Puppy Chow advertising, which promoted the product as able to prevent or heal joint disease, was deceptive. After years of suits and countersuits, Purina ended up paying $12 million in damages and running corrective informational ads. Although Alpo won the battle, it had to spend far more than anticipated defending its own puppy food line against unsubstantiated counterclaims.

Arrival of superstores and dot-com marketers

In 1987, John Doughty changed the petcare industry by opening the first pet supply superstore, Petsmart, in Phoenix. As of early 2001, there were more than 1,300 pet superstores in the U.S., generating an estimated 75% of pet-related sales.

Whether national or regional, all of the superstores advertised heavily during the 1990s. Petsmart aired consumer TV spots from the EvansGroup with the tagline, "Petsmart. Where pets are family."

By the early 1990s, the specialty market accounted for $1 billion of the $6.7 billion pet food market, with Hill's Pet Nutrition—then the owner of Science Diet—claiming 40% of the specialty market and Iams, 35%. Iams turned to direct mail, increasing brand loyalty by sending new pet owners a letter about nutrition that was addressed to the pet and referred to its owners as parents. Colgate-Palmolive Co., which had acquired Science Diet, emphasized veterinarian endorsements in its advertising.

At the end of the 20th century, when consumer spending on dogs and cats was growing at 15% annually, the Internet became a high-profile distribution channel for pet supplies, although Web-based sales represented less than 1% of the total market. The leader was Petsmart.com, launched in 1999 as an independent company owned by the superstore chain. Its site attracted an estimated 1.2 million visitors per month, more than twice as many as its closest rival, petopia.com, which was 20% owned by the superstore retail chain Petco.

Those dot-coms spent between $5 million and $20 million per campaign. Petsmart.com ran ads on broadcast and cable networks and Internet portals such as Excite and Lycos, as well as print efforts; it also piggybacked on its brick-and-mortar partner's newspaper inserts to 40 million households. Rival Petopia tagged onto in-store and online advertising by its partner Petco and sponsored live events such as dog walks.

Pets.com, placed ads on Thanksgiving Day football games and during Super Bowl XXXIV in January 2000 (a $2 million effort), had signage in 1,500 Safeway outlets and mailed a print magazine to 1 million computer-using pet owners, veterinarian offices and humane societies. It had revenue of $600,000 in the quarter before it started advertising; the following quarter's revenue jumped to $5 million.

Pets.com's sarcastic spokescharacter, a sock-puppet dog created by TBWA/Chiat/Day, became the first ad icon from the dot-com world; after appearing in 13 TV spots, it became a pop-culture phenomenon. Still, the puppet's popularity did not prevent the company from folding in late 2000, unable to cover expenses that included nearly $15 million in advertising expenditures.

Morris and friends

The sock puppet canine was just one of many well-known pet-related trade characters. Morris the Cat, the spokescat for 9-Lives created by Leo Burnett Co., is a case in point. Introduced in 1969, Morris was still active (in the form of a look-alike) more than 30 years later. The character's job was to convince brand-switching owners to select 9-Lives brand for their "finicky" cats.

Purina used a canine named Ike, the Lucky Dog, to promote its Dog Chow, while other companies associated themselves with already famous dogs and cats, including Rin Tin Tin (Gaines), Benji (Purina's Moist 'n Chunky), Snoopy (Ibco)and Sylvester (9-Lives).

Alpo opted for human celebrities, including actor Lorne Greene ("Bonanza") in the 1970s and animal author and TV personality Joan Embery in the 1980s.

Notable pet industry jingles included Purina Cat Chow's "Chow Chow Chow" and Meow Mix's "Meow, Meow, Meow, Meow" song, sung by special effects-enhanced cats. Avrett, Free & Ginsberg created the "Chow-Chow-Chow-ing" cat; Della Femina, Travisano & Partners was behind Meow Mix's musical feline.

As the industry moved into the 21st century, 58 million pet-owning households in the U.S. purchased food and supplies to the tune of $23 billion, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. As throughout the industry's history, growth—forecast at 10% to 15% per year—was expected to be supported through significant ad expenditures by pet supply manufacturers and retailers.

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