Mars Petcare on approaching innovation as ‘platforms not projects’ 

Even as the cost of living crisis pushes price up consumers’ agendas, they still demand product innovation from brands, according to Mars Petcare’s Chris Rodi.

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Mars Petcare is driving “real scale” behind its product innovations by approaching them as cross-brand platforms, according to European marketing director of natural and health brands, Chris Rodi.

The world’s biggest pet food manufacturer, Mars Petcare owns brands including Sheba, Whiskas, Pedigree, Dreamies and Cesar. The company generated over $18bn (£15.3bn) in revenue in 2020.

Speaking to Marketing Week, Rodi says it has made sense for the pet care giant to innovate around broad trends, rather than thinking about individual projects.

“We think of [innovations] as a platform – multiple brands building on a pattern or trend – rather than just thinking about it as one individual project for one brand,” he explains.

“We can get caught in our silos of thinking about our individual brand and the individual initiative that we’re trying to drive… What is missing there is asking, are there other brand teams that can also benefit from this territory? Can I increase the scale of this innovation and make it financially more attractive to drive top line growth?

“’Natural’ is one trend in pet nutrition where we’ve managed to drive real scale by thinking of it as a platform, not just one initiative.”

On top of driving scale, the other key benefit of the platform approach is it enables the “democratisation” of different innovations across brands and price points, he adds.

We’re always having to think about how we are evolving to consumer expectations, and pet parent expectations.

Chris Rodi, Mars Petcare

For example, Mars Petcare provides natural pet food products both through smaller brands like James Wellbeloved, a newer natural dog and cat food brand for the UK market, as well as across its “much bigger brands”, including Sheba and Pedigree. Recent launches in the natural category include Cesar Natural Goodness and Perfect Fit Natural Vitality.

A broad range of consumers buying at a range of price points are therefore able to purchase natural products within Mars Petcare’s portfolio of brands, something which will likely become increasingly important as the cost of living crisis prompts some customers to trade down.

“Having natural benefits across those brands ensures that all consumers, no matter what their price point is, can access some of those benefits,” Rodi explains.

However, when launching innovation platforms across brands, Mars Petcare thinks carefully to ensure its innovations stay true to each brand’s core, he adds.

“It starts with the compass and the positioning of the brand. But equally, we use testing to also make sure that we’re asking that question of, ‘Is this something that really fits in well to the brand?’” he says.

Innovation during inflation

The ongoing cost of living crisis is certainly driving price and value up the agenda for consumers, and Mars Petcare is focused on both communicating the value of its products and “making sure the high quality of them and the benefits they deliver are communicated super clearly to consumers”, Rodi says.

However, consumers are still demanding product innovation, he adds. Mars Petcare is specifically seeing demand for innovation around the trends of healthcare and nutrition, sustainability, and personalisation.

In healthcare and nutrition, Mars Petcare already has a strong record of innovation, claims Rodi. He cites the UK launch of Crave, a high protein cat and dog food, in 2019 as one example.

Sustainability is also increasingly important to consumers, he says, and is a trend the business has yet to see falter.

“That means sustainable packaging is critical, and plant-based innovation is critical,” he explains.

For example, Mars Petcare has been experimenting with a proposition called Natusan, a DTC platform which enables consumers to buy natural, biodegradable cat litter, as approximately 2 million tonnes of cat litter is wasted each year. This DTC product is growing “nicely”, Rodi says.6 ways Mars Petcare is using DTC to develop ‘better marketers’

Meanwhile, Mars Petcare’s expansion into DTC has also allowed it to offer more personalised products to its consumers. In Germany, the company is experimenting with a proposition called MyPerfectFit, which allows consumers to personalise food for their pets according to diet, species and any other particular needs.

Ultimately, innovation has been central to the culture and purpose at Mars Petcare, and will continue to be so even in times of inflation and recession, Rodi says.

“Our purpose in pet care is to create a better world for pets, because they make a better world for us. So we’re always having to think about how we are evolving to consumer expectations, and pet parent expectations,” he concludes.