P&G launches its smart-puppy initiative today with a press conference at the annual conference of the American Veterinary Medicine Association aimed at a key group of influencers. The bulk of what may be the superpremium brand's biggest marketing effort ever breaks next month, including TV, print, online and direct mail.
"This is really breakthrough research, and we'll be taking a truly 360-degree approach to communicate that," said Eukanuba Brand Manager Mark Tinsey. "For us, that starts with key influencer groups-the vet and the breeder."
Eukanuba claims that increased levels of the Omega 3 fatty acid DHA in its food makes puppies easier to train by improving cognitive performance, targeting the No. 1 reason dogs are abandoned, sent to shelters and euthanized, said Dan Carey, veterinary researcher for P&G. "In the United States," he said, "bad behavior kills more dogs than any single disease."
Given long-running kibble quibbles among the leading premium brands, with numerous challenges to ad claims over the years, P&G thoroughly vetted its claim. It tested 39 beagles in simple H-shaped mazes, where they were conditioned to find treats by following a path marked by a circle or square over the course of 30 days. Then, they were retrained the following 30 days with the symbols reversed.
About 70% of pups on the enhanced-DHA diet passed the test, compared to about 35% of pups on typical-DHA diets. Success was defined as going the right direction 80% of the time on two successive days in each version of the maze. "That's a huge difference, which gives us great confidence it's quite meaningful," Mr. Carey said.
The improvement isn't just to the puppy food but also to Eukanuba High Performance dog food for pregnant dogs or dogs in athletic competition. For the puppy to reap the full benefit, both pregnant mother and her pup must eat the enhanced food, Mr. Carey said.
From a marketing standpoint, that makes breeders a key influencer group for the brand, too, said Mr. Tinsey. Not only will they have to use the food to see the full benefit, but they are also likely to promote it to potential buyers.
Eukanuba isn't the first super-premium dog food to claim it improves cognitive function, but it is the first to try it with puppies.
Colgate-Palmolive Co.'s Prescription Diet b/d launched in 2002 claiming to prevent brain aging in older dogs and, as a result, promote alertness and enthusiasm and reduce household soiling. On a challenge from P&G, the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus recommended Colgate modify the ads because of insufficient support and qualification, but Prescription Diet has kept the ads promising cognitive benefits on air.
Executives of Hill's Science Diet didn't return calls for comment.
Mr. Tinsey declined to say how Eukanuba's ads will dramatize its claim, but said they will be "more heart-opening" than clinical. Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, handles advertising. Omnicom Group's Targetbase, Irving, Tex., and Fleishman-Hillard, St. Louis, handle direct marketing and public relations, respectively. Bridge Worldwide, Cincinnati, handles interactive.
While DHA is readily available, he said it would take a competitor considerable time to replicate P&G's research, which Mr. Carey believes will give P&G exclusivity for a considerable time. Prescription Diet works by different means, adding antioxidant vitamins to prevent damage to cells from free radicals.
Despite recent research indicating border collies understand hundreds of words, Mr. Carey is not prepared to claim Eukanuba will help there. "It would make a lot of our feeding studies easier to document if the dogs would just fill in the blanks."