Skip to main content

Pet food trends and insights from an industry expert

September 8, 2022
Dog jumping over a log.

Nicole Hill is using her immersive experience in the human nutrition and pet industries to extract actionable insights for innovation and branding.

Are human health trends carrying over to the pet food industry? Nicole Hill, executive director of strategy at MarketPlace, joins the Ag Future podcast to discuss how trends in human nutrition related to issues like gut health, immunity, fiber and cognitive health are making their way to pet store shelves as the line between pet and family member blurs.

The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Nicole Hill hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

Tom:            Welcome to Ag Future, presented by Alltech. Join us from the 2022 Alltech ONE Conference as we explore opportunities within agri-food, business and beyond.


                     Nicole Hill is the executive director of strategy at Marketplace, a business consultancy and brand firm. In this role, she is taking the lead and mapping out strategies for business-to-business and consumer packaged goods for pet, animal and human nutrition and wellness brands.


                     I'm Tom Martin for the Alltech Ag Future podcast series, here with Nicole to talk about pet and human crossover trends and insights. Welcome, Nicole.


Nicole:          Thanks so much for having me, Tom.


Tom:            If I understand correctly, you engage in the design and research and analysis.


Nicole:          Yes. In my role as executive director of strategy at Marketplace, I touch the innovation pipelines of a lot of pet brands, both on the B2B and consumer side. Part of driving innovation means doing consumer insights research as well as actually developing the brands or rebranding an existing brand in the marketplace that needs to reposition to better connect with the pet parent of today.


Tom:            What sort of basic building blocks have to be in place before your work begins?


Nicole:          Well, we start with, obviously, getting to know the product or the brand that exists. But quickly after that, we go through a design thinking process. The first step in that process is empathy. To really empathize with that pet parent, with that audience, we want to make sure we're not just projecting our own perceptions of what they might want, value, feel (or) think but to really reality-test our hypotheses and build on our existing knowledge of the space with custom research. We're actually surveying 500, 600, 700 pet parents across the U.S. to really capture what it is they think, feel, value (and) desire to understand their personal relationships with their pets. Then we go from there, applying different lenses to tap into the specific audience for the product or brand that we're working with.


Tom:            This is a really sensitive corner of the general consumer market, isn't it? I mean, we're talking about something here (that is) secondary only to family, human family — our dogs and cats and even the other critters that we share our lives with become family, and they underscore that pet-to-human relationship. How does your recognition of that special crossover influence the advice that you share with client companies?


Nicole:          Sure. Well, as you mentioned, for so many people, pets are considered a member of the family. We recently did some research and discovered a pocket of those pet parents who actually think, “My pet themselves think they are human.” There is this persistent humanization of pets that's been going on for some time and really has continued to increase. When we look at the crossover trends between pet and human nutrition spaces — because at Marketplace, we serve both pet brands and human nutrition brands — we really see a lot of corollary evidence that the things that people want for themselves, they also want for their pets. When we're talking about things like gut health, immunity (and) fiber, those are drivers in the human nutrition space. Likewise, we're seeing those same trends track in the pet nutrition space. That's really coming into play when we look at, of course, things like fiber in general, but prebiotics and even postbiotics, along — following the trend in probiotics — a lot of that, in terms of gut and immune health, the trend in human toward those need states is really aligning with what we're seeing in pet as well.


Tom:            Everybody's talking about sustainability these days. It's so important. I'm just wondering how it plays a role in your strategic thinking.


Nicole:          Absolutely. I mean, I think we all recognize that we are stewards of our planet, stewards of what we leave behind for the next generation. Companies, brands and categories in the pet and human nutrition industries are highly aware that every action that they take leaves a lasting mark. As we're seeing brands and businesses invest in sustainability efforts in the ingredients they source, in their packaging, in their manufacturing processes, we want to make sure that we're telling that story so that the consumers that are purchasing their products understand the impact that their individual purchase decision ultimately makes — that lasting effect, that ripple effect — as volume and other things are considered in purchase choices, what that connection is to environmental concerns.


Tom:            What are some leading current trends in pet food, and what potential future trends are you watching (or) keeping an eye on?


Nicole:          Yes. Immunity and gut health are definitely two top trends. People want their pets to live as long as possible. I think we can all recognize that moment where we feel like, “Ah, dogs just don't live long enough. I wish my dog lived as long as I did.” Immunity is definitely that proactive measure. With the crossover between human and pet nutrition also comes that crossover awareness — the awareness that the gut and mind are connected and that gut health is an important component of overall health. People are really seeing how gut health plays a role in both their nutritional wellness and in their pets’ (wellness). We're seeing those trends continue to build.


                     I also think the past two years have driven a higher awareness of both immunity and gut health but also anti-anxiety and calming issues for pets, especially for those pet parents who have had the opportunity to work from home for a period of time with their pet or adopted their pet during that time and may now be returning to in-person in the office. Their pet now might be dealing with some separation anxiety, things like that. Looking for products that are (produced) in a safe and healthy way (will) also help their pet with mood regulation so they don't have that stress and anxiety of being apart from their pet parent.


Tom:            It's really interesting that you mentioned that connection between mind and nutrition. We've been talking to a lot of people here about neurogastronomy, of course, in a human context, but I never really imagined that we would take it over into a pet context. But it makes perfect sense.


Nicole:          It really does. Even certain subsets of pet and pet parent relationships — those people who look at their pet and think, “This pet is my best friend, a member of my family; my pet thinks that they're human” — among those subsets, we're actually seeing an over-indexing on the desire for cognitive health benefits for their pet. Again, I think part of that is we think of our pets as people. We think of them as having these unique and amazing distinct personalities. So much of our personality is obviously controlled by our brains. We want our pet to be their healthiest, best version of themselves in all facets for as long as humanly possible, or as long as canine-ly or felinely possible.


Tom:            I think many of us wish they could talk but then worry about what they would say if they could.


Nicole:          Exactly.


Tom:            There's a lot of discussion today about functional ingredients, the microbiome and antibiotics. Let's look at each of these. First, functional ingredients. What does that mean, and why is it a hot topic?


Nicole:          Of course. When we're talking about functional ingredients, we're talking about things that provide a benefit. They perform a function in the body, such as supporting hip and joint health, skin and coat health, mobility, cognitive function, gut health immunity, things like that. Functional benefits are important because that's really how pet parents shop for things like supplements or other functional nutrition, even foods. When we talk about a specific functional benefit, like mobility, let's say, (or) hip and joint health, you want your pet to be able to get around, climb the stairs, go on long walks, hikes, whatever the case may be.


                     That is why so many pet parents shop for functional benefits, first, in the supplement space, specifically. They look for not ingredients first but benefits first — benefits, one, for many pet parents aligned with that quality of life that they seek for their pet. Then, also, it really helps personalize the nutrition for their pet, even when we're looking at foods. So, foods that might support hip and joint health or mobility — that would be perhaps a food that someone might be more inclined to purchase for their dog that may be getting up in years and may be having a little bit more trouble getting around, or perhaps the dog is just a breed that is known to potentially have mobility issues as they age and they want to be proactive about their pet's health.


Tom:            What about microbiomes — the microbiomes that occupy our pets’ digestive systems? 


Nicole:          The mysterious and interesting microbiome. I think it's something that, as much as we continue to know more and more about it, there’s still so much more to know. As folks consider not just the unique fingerprints, basically, of our individual microbiomes and those of our pets, we're also considering how we might best help our pets balance their internal biology and makeup so that, again, they can live the longest, healthiest, happiest lives they can. When we're looking at things like prebiotics, postbiotics — really, all of the biotics — probiotics, that's really what consumers are looking toward to help maintain a modulated, a well-modulated microbiome for their pet.


Tom:            Antibiotics have gotten a lot of attention in recent years — resistance to them and their impact on the microbiome in particular. How do these concerns figure into discussions you have with the pet food industry?


Nicole:          In the pet food industry, what we're seeing is a high desire for naturalness. What “all-natural” means from a consumer-demand standpoint versus a regulatory standpoint are two different things. One of the things that we do from a research standpoint is try to understand what consumers mean when they say certain things. Even things that might be good for one's pet or good or necessary at times, it can also be something that people aren't necessarily comfortable with or have a full level of awareness or education about. With that in mind, there are some perceptions of, “Okay, how can I have less of certain things in my pet's diet or less of certain things in my pet's life, and antibiotics being one of them?” I think people recognize that there's a time and a place but maybe aren't wanting to rely too heavily (on these products).


                     That's where — what we see as pet parents say, “I want to be proactive with my pet's nutrition and health to mitigate potential needs for other sources of treatment down the road that are more reactive.” They're making nutrition decisions to proactively manage health and wellness in ways that, as pet parents, they perceive to be natural. “All-natural,” “made in the USA,” those are top trends among us pet parents right now that are not necessarily going to be a key differentiator for product in the space, but there's something that almost has become table stakes in a lot of the pet nutrition categories.


Tom:            Many of us are engaging in a lot of guesswork when we shop for pets, for food. We want to provide what they need to be healthy and happy, the things that you've been talking about. Most of us, though, are not nutritionists. How can we become better informed?


Nicole:          I like to say there's always more to know. Just being curious and always seeking new information from reliable sources (is important). There are regulatory bodies like AAFCO that are resources for not just consumers but also the makers of a lot of pet nutrition products. I think, you know, there are always folks that are going to consult with their veterinarian. When we're talking about companion pets, obviously, that's going to be a key resource for our pets, just like our medical professionals and healthcare providers are for ourselves.


                     So, making sure that information is coming from reliable sources. Also, recognizing that good science often changes. As we get more information, recommendations might shift. That's not a bad thing; that's good. That means we're learning more. We're getting more data. We're building new hypotheses and testing them. Not just looking to reliable, credible resources but also resources that have proactively continued to seek further understanding, seek new information. I think those solid resources are great.


                     Also, just being aware of your own personal pet. Like you mentioned, we all have our own microbiome, and what works for your pet might be slightly different than what works for someone else, for (their) specific needs state. That said, there are great standards that we all can rely on for the nutritional completeness of our pet's diet. Pet foods in the U.S. specifically have specific standards they have to meet. While we can all make decisions based on what we feel is best for our pet, there's a lot of confidence knowing that the products that are on the market have met a certain regulatory expectation.


Tom:            That's Nicole Hill. She is executive director of strategy at the business consultancy and brand for Marketplace. Thanks, Nicole.


Nicole:          Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.


Tom:            For the Alltech Ag Future podcast, I'm Tom Martin. Thank you for joining us. Be sure to subscribe to Ag Future wherever you listen to podcasts.