Misnavigating The Pet Food Crisis
Marc E. Babej and Tim Pollak
The tainted pet food crisis has roiled a passionate market. And the story isn't dying: As the recalls mount, and the threat moves from cuts-in-gravy to staple dry food and even to treats, feeding pets seems like Russian roulette. How have the pet food companies involved reacted? Too little, too late--and, for the most part, the wrong way.
For most pet-owning families, their pets are family. This is hardly news to the nation's pet food manufacturers, but it might as well be. They've been strangely, almost eerily, silent. Such behavior consumers might expect from a big, impersonal corporation, but not from the people who make the food for their beloved pets.
A recent tour of their Web sites was almost surreal. As you might expect, the worst offender was Menu Foods, maker of the majority of the food affected by the recall. Rather than a heartfelt apology, the Menu Foods site displays puppies joyfully eating out of bowls emblazoned with the corporate name.
The consumer brands aren't doing much better. The home pages of Hill's Pet Nutrition, Del Monte Foods and Nestlé Purina PetCare offered links to press releases that sound like the product of a chemist, a lawyer and a publicist huddled around a conference table. MasterFoods trumpeted its non-involvement. Iams also led with good news: "This recall does not affect any Iams or Eukanuba products marketed outside of the U.S. and Canada." But what about their North American customers? Two more clicks, and buried in a page of technical copy is the following line: "We want you to know that we care deeply, and we continue to take action on your behalf." Sounds good--but what actions are they taking?
To Iams' credit, so far alone among this caring crew, it ran a national newspaper ad acknowledging the crisis. It expressed the sentiment that its employees were "heartsick that any of our products were involved," but provided little in the way of reassurance to jittery pet owners. Worst of all, the ad said nothing of substance about the steps being taken to ensure this would never happen again.
So far, pet food brands have been hiding behind each other, feeling secure in the knowledge that their collective market dominance leaves pet owners with few options. Sure, there are alternatives--high-priced organic specialty foods such as Merrick or Abady, or the fresh, refrigerated dog foods being rolled out to national retailers by Freshpet. Even homemade recipes have been getting a lot of attention. But these options can't possibly satisfy the hunger of an estimated 100 million America dogs and cats.
What should the industry be doing?
First, say you're sorry. Act like you really care about the animals. You may not think you owe an apology, but in pet owners' minds, you do.
Second, offer to replace the pet food in people's pantries, even it it's not your brand. Every new recall announcement creates more doubt about the food that's already out in the market. It might not be the cheapest solution, but it would buy a lot more goodwill than an ad campaign.
Third, stop being defensive. Simply reassuring people your other products are safe isn't very reassuring. After all, a few weeks ago, you were de facto assuring that all your products were safe. Do you trust the guy who says "just trust me" right after he messed up? Probably not. To regain consumers' trust, pet food brands have to give consumers reasons to trust that their food is safe.
Fourth, offer some substance. Explain what really happened, and what specific steps you are taking now to prevent something like this from happening again.
Fifth, send a message from the top. Jim Burke, the legendary head of Johnson & Johnson (nyse: JNJ - news - people ), personally managed the 1982 Tylenol crisis. The pet food manufacturers are all hiding behind their brands--to wit, the full-page ad signed by "The Employees of Iams and Eukanuba Pet Foods," not by A.G. Lafley, the CEO of Procter & Gamble (nyse: PG - news - people ), which owns both brands. The pet owners of America deserve to hear from the CEOs to whom they entrust the health and well-being of their pets. There are differences between this crisis and Tylenol's, but there is no less need for corporate courage, integrity and leadership.