Premiumization Can Teach an Old Pet Food Brand New Tricks

Premiumization Can Teach an Old Pet Food Brand New Tricks

For some manufacturers, premiumization has become a path for success. Today’s consumers’ keen sense of value is based on more than price; rather, it’s a combination of experience, quality and appeal. Ainsworth Pet Nutrition (APN) saw premiumization as a path to tap into this valuation and combat stagnant growth for its legacy pet food brand.


With many pet parents turning towards pet specialty stores for their needs, shoppers seemed to pay little attention to the pet aisle during their trips to mainstream stores like grocers and mass merchandisers. “Our legacy brand competes in the value space—a rapidly declining segment of pet food,” says Jeff Watters, APN President and CEO.

To drive growth, APN knew it had to snap shoppers out of auto-pilot. But how to do so? The company created a new strategy based on a buyer’s journey through the path-to-purchase to get them back into the pet aisle in grocery and mass stores. Early on, shopper immersion studies revealed that 62% of pet owners agreed that their pets provide more than just companionship, and 45% feel safe and less lonely with their pets around.

“Consumers are driving the humanization of pets. This shift in mindset accounts for the rise in pet expenditures, with owners increasingly treating their pets as they would themselves, with special food and treats,” says Watters. To that end, in the over $5 billion dry dog food category at mainstream retailers, sales volume of value brands decreased 5.7% (2012-2015) while super-premium brand sales increased over 9%. 

Working with Nielsen, APN discovered a huge opportunity for super premium pet food in mainstream retailers. Through a mix of market structure and qualitative research, APN found that consumers were looking for a high quality product to feed their pets but could only find this type of product in pet specialty formats, uncovering a significant gap in the pet food assortment available in the grocery and mass merchandise space. The result: the creation of a new, super premium pet food brand Rachael Ray Nutrish® that provides pet store quality food with supermarket convenience.

“We were at a critical crossroads,” Watters emphasized. “The value category was unsustainable. We had to invest in super premium.”


The buyer journey study APN commissioned with Nielsen used in-home interviews, stores walk-throughs, consumer surveys, virtual shopping and assortment studies to redefine the pet food aisle and path to purchase motivators. The study uncovered the full scope of the opportunity and generated excitement with retail partners. Nutrish® quickly became the fastest growing brand in mainstream retailers with a 48.8% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) over five years and pushed super-premium sales in mainstream retailers from -0.5% in 2011 to 13% in 2015.

By refocusing efforts on a super-premium strategy, Ainsworth generated strategic wins with key grocery and mass merchandise retailers, including increased in-store exposure via store signage and purchase triggers in adjacent aisles. At the same time, the company was able to build a highly profitable portfolio and support strong growth for super-premium dog food in the mainstream market. 


Mainstream market is defined as the Nielsen USxAOC total market (grocery retailers under $2 million, mass merchandisers, dollar, drug and club companies). Super premium, as defined by manufacturer, includes products with meat or meat meal as the first ingredient. Some ingredient panels contain corn, but most include limited to no artificial flavors, and have a “Super Premium” or “Ultra Premium” claim on package. 

The buyer journey study included several major components:  

  • In-home interviews and store walk-throughs;
  • Custom survey of over 15,000 dog and cat food consumers from Nielsen Homescan Panel;
  • Assortment studies that provided incrementality and category optimization insights to make optimal shelf space recommendations; and
  • A virtual shopping environment that tested among 2,750 respondents provided by Nielsen Virtual Simulator with a custom survey follow up.