Humanization, active listening: A peek behind The J.M. Smucker Company’s pet strategy

Humanization, active listening: A peek behind The J.M. Smucker Company’s pet strategy

ORRVILLE, OHIO — It all began in 2015, when The J.M. Smucker Company made its first foray into the pet food market by acquiring Big Heart Pet Brands for $5.8 billion. In just eight short years since, the company has established itself as a leader in the pet food industry, building a foundation of iconic, lucrative brands.

But with humanization becoming ever-more present and younger generations soon dominating pet ownership, the company began to reevaluate its pet food strategy. The J.M. Smucker Company shocked the industry by divesting several of its pet food brands in February 2023, making its intentions clear — zero in on cat food and dog snacks.

“We know pets is this mega category — it has a ton of different nooks and crannies where you can compete,” said Judd Freitag, vice president of marketing for pet food and snacks at The J.M. Smucker Company, in an exclusive with Pet Food Processing. “We’re really happy with the focus that is provided with our portfolio within dog treats and mainstream cat food. We think the space is going to continue to be ripened for growth. We have a real reason to believe that we can win.”

According to Freitag, the divestiture made perfect sense for The J.M. Smucker Company, as it provided the company with a strong foundation ripe for significant growth potential.

“We’re built to lead,” Freitag said. “Our position within these categories gave us the confidence that these are the right spaces for us that have a ton of growth potential.”

“We strongly believe that we win where we lead,” he shared. “Within dog food, we were always going to be kind of a No. 4 or No. 5 player within that space, and there are companies that execute really well from those strategic positions. But we were not necessarily built that way, we’re built to lead. Our position within these categories gave us the confidence that these are the right spaces for us that have a ton of growth potential.”


All about taste and fun

As Freitag and everyone else in the industry knows, humanization is driving the pet food and treat space, but humanization may have only just begun. Consumers are dedicating more time — and money — to their pets, transforming the human-animal bond into something more reminiscent of parent and child. And this relationship evolution is especially apparent among younger generations.

According to the American Pet Products Association’s (APPA) 2023-2024 National Pet Owners Survey, released in March 2023, for the first time, the number of Gen Z and Millennial pet parents currently equals that of Gen X and Baby Boomer pet owners. As older generations continue to phase out of pet ownership and new, younger pet parents take their place, humanization will only continue to flourish — becoming not just a norm, but an expectation.

In optimizing its portfolio, The J.M. Smucker Company sought to leverage humanization by focusing on taste and fun and applying it to its leading categories.

“We’ve chosen these iconic equities that have two attributes that we know are always going to resonate with consumers, which are taste and fun,” Freitag said. “And we really have a great product and brand lineup that brings taste and fun to the forefront at all times. Regardless of the consumer cohort, purchasing great tasting treats [is important], but driving that human and pet connection is going to continue to be important as well.”

The company first turned its eye to flavors by incorporating savory proteins into its existing products. But soon another segment within the humanization movement caught the company’s attention.

The J.M. Smucker Company lasered in on taste and fun for its pet food and treat brands, introducing high-protein flavors and innovative textures to its foundational brands.


Source: The J.M. Smucker Company

“It started really with human flavors making their way over and being elevated — beef turned into filet mignon,” shared Jasen Cusick, director of pet treats at The J.M. Smucker Company. “But we’re seeing that humanization goes beyond just the product; it’s now turning into more of the experience, the occasion.”

Not only are human flavors and attributes trickling their way into pet formulas — they’re penetrating the space. As consumers expand their relationship with their pets, viewing them as children, they begin to include them in human celebrations.

“Where humans might celebrate Halloween or Valentine’s Day or even our birthdays, we’re now finding that many dog-owning households want to do the same for their pets,” Cusick added. “Sixty-nine percent of dog parents say they celebrate their dog’s birthday or ‘gotcha day.’ Because of that we’ve really invested in not only the flavors, but in those products that help pet parents celebrate those different seasons or occasions.”

To tap into this burgeoning trend, The J.M. Smucker Company established its Treats Commercialization Team in 2019, completely dedicated to seasonal and special occasion treat products, which have only furthered the company’s success, according to Cusik.

“Humanization goes beyond just the product; it’s now turning into more of the experience, the occasion,” Cusick said.

For the complete-and-balanced side, this humanization trend has inspired The J.M. Smucker Company to introduce “tastier” formulas of its Meow Mix brand. Cats are known to be a bit more particular with their food preferences, as the industry and cat owners alike are well familiar with how easily cats can reject any type of food. In incorporating more protein flavors, Meow Mix strives to help cat parents provide their felines with a more enjoyable mealtime experience — one that’s less likely to lead to rejection.

“Meow Mix is what we call a full-feed experience, so we’re really leaning into the mealtime experiences,” Freitag explained. “But we know that mealtime can be a little bit of a stressful event for cat parents, and we want to pivot that from a point of stress to a point of joy.”

To create this joyful mealtime experience, the company expanded its Meow Mix offerings to not only include new flavors, but various textures as well, something cats are known to rely heavily on when making decisions about their food.

According to Freitag and Jansen, humanization will continue to serve The J.M. Smucker Company well in its pet food and treat endeavors as it continues to invest in prioritizing tastier products that provide joy for pets and pet parents alike.

“Humanization is going to continue to be a driver in the pet space, but every relationship between pet and pet parent is unique and it changes over time as well,” Freitag explained. “So we spend a considerable amount of time, energy, money and everything else to really uncover the joys in there, but to also uncover the struggles that are real in those relationships, so that we always have the right product at the right moment.”


A proactive approach

Though humanization is clearly at the forefront of The J.M. Smucker Company’s pet food and treat strategy, this movement is just a part of the full equation. Another important aspect for the company is taking a more proactive approach to evolving consumer demand — something Freitag and Jansen call “active listening.”

“We’re constantly listening to where the consumer wants to go,” Freitag explained. “A huge portion of dog-owning households are now Millennials and Gen Z. We know that their attitudes toward dog and cat ownership and the connection they have with their pet is continuing to evolve, and we’re going to continue to evolve with them as well.”

The company isn’t merely keeping an eye on consumer demand but is lasering its focus on consumers’ needs.

“As we think about the Milk-Bone brand, it’s about investing in the brand, building that emotional [human-animal] connection, and developing products that are going to meet [consumer] needs,” Cusick said.

“Where is the consumer shifting? Where are they going? What are those unmet needs?” Cusick said. “As we think about Milk-Bone, it’s about investing in the brand, building that emotional connection, and developing products that are going to meet those needs — and even some of the unmet needs.”

This active listening approach ensures the company isn’t just jumping on the bandwagon and releasing products that every other company has released, but allows it to develop and launch cat foods and dog snacks that actually address pet parents’ pain points.    

“Our focus that we have with these brands gives us an advantage to be faster to market, and that can take a lot of different forms,” Freitag said. “One could be new products that we’re bringing to life, the second is how we communicate the benefits of the products we already have out there. We do a lot of both social and active listening with our consumers, as far as where the struggles in their journey are, where the joys in their journey are, and how do we continue to communicate our brands around that.”


Balanced growth

With all this taste, fun and active listening, the J.M. Smucker Company is staying busy.

On the product development side, the company is determined to balance its growth with new innovations and reformulations of its existing products. For example, during its 2023 CAGNY presentation, the company shared its Wet 2.0 project, a revitalization effort that introduced more flavors and textures under its Meow Mix line. To do so, Smucker leveraged its strong foundation in the dry cat food sector to establish the same foundation in the wet segment.

“Cats are really finicky and they’re not afraid to walk away from a bowl of food,” Freitag shared. “We really think that Meow Mix has cracked the code on cats, delivering those best-tasting products all the time. We’ve been doing it with our dry portfolio for a number of decades now, but we saw an opportunity in this wet space to really elevate our taste credentials.”

To provide cats — and their owners — with a more pleasurable feeding experience (that isn’t filled with rejection), The J.M. Smucker Company imparted on a Wet 2.0 project to revitalize its wet cat food formulas

To provide cats — and their owners — with a more pleasurable feeding experience (that isn’t filled with rejection), The J.M. Smucker Company imparted on a Wet 2.0 project to revitalize its wet cat food formulas. 

| Source: The J.M. Smucker Company

Not only did the brand upgrade its wet offerings for cats, but it also refocused its marketing and advertising efforts within the Wet 2.0 project, debuting new campaigns to ensure cat parents were aware of the new flavors.

The approach is similar for Milk-Bone, which, as Cusick shared, is concentrated on revitalizing the brand.

“Milk-Bone is a 100-year-old-plus brand and, as a leader in the dog treats space, we are investing in and continuing to drive the business,” he said. “Over the past couple of years, we’ve had an exciting run with Milk-Bone, revitalizing and adding new graphics, new marketing campaigns, as well as big innovation. We’re continuing to breathe new energy and life into the brand and making it continually relevant, especially with the younger consumers that are entering the category.”

To maintain the relevancy of Milk-Bone’s base business, the brand collaborated with fashion brand Only NY, launching a variety of human clothing and dog walking supplies. According to Cusick, the collab sold out of many items within mere days.

This balancing act of developing new innovations while also revitalizing its foundational brands is proving fruitful for The J.M. Smucker Company. According to the company’s recently released first-quarter financials, net sales for its retail pet foods segment increased 22%, or $79.7 million, when excluding the recent divestiture. Of that growth, 12% was attributed to volume/mix and 10% was related to net price realization across the portfolio.

With a concentration on cat food and dog snacks, The J.M. Smucker Company can also refocus its investment efforts. According to Freitag, this provides the company a benefit when collaborating with a variety of retailers, including mass/grocery, pet specialty and e-commerce.

“By being focused within a couple of core categories, it allows us to be a little bit more intimate with what our retailers are doing, as well with what their strategies are and how we can partner with them to grow their businesses too,” he explained.

For the future, The J.M. Smucker Company has ambitious plans to strengthen all areas of its pet nutrition businesses — from addressing supply chain capacity to strengthening its communications and marketing efforts.

“Ultimately, this is a growth platform for the Smucker Company,” Freitag said. “So, we will continue to invest in our pet business, whether that’s capacity within our supply chain to make sure that we don’t have any out-of-stocks on shelves, whether it’s capabilities to be able to bring some of these new innovations to the market, or whether it’s in communications. We will continue to invest within the pet space.”

Read more news from pet food manufacturers.

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