You may have heard about the battle between Purina and Blue Buffalo. Purina describe it as a battle about pet food honesty. How many of us who buy pet food, particularly dry pet food, believe that any of the big pet food manufacturers are strictly honest in their advertising and marketing? I suspect not many.
In the USA, Blue Buffalo have had quite a rapid rise to prominence in the pet food market. This has irritated competing big-name manufacturers. One of the reasons why Blue Buffalo rose to prominence quickly was because they recognised at the outset two important aspects of pet food marketing, namely that:
- there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors in how pet food is advertised and this is an area where they admit they have a lot of expertise (they used the words “smoke and mirrors” indicating a lack of forthrightness):
- the consumer, the concerned cat owner, likes to see quality ingredients in the cat and dog food that they purchase. They don’t like to see anything in pet food which is described as a “byproduct”. Consumers don’t like the look of the word because it makes them think of rubbish ingredients, factory sweepings, roadkill, rotten livestock carcasses with poisons in them etc..
They worked on these two aspects of the business and it helped them to succeed. They realised that they could have their product manufactured by someone else and all they had to do was to focus on good packaging and good marketing which meant a start-up was fairly straightforward.
One of the ways that Blue Buffalo succeeded was to hire staff as in-store representatives of their brand at PetSmart who would surreptitiously approach customers who were utterly confused, as most of us are by the plethora of products and confusing labelling, and steer them towards Blue Buffalo which they affectionately refer to as “the Buff”.
Knowing their customers had become disillusioned with the quality of pet food they focused on high quality ingredients while simultaneously employing “smoke and mirrors” to imply that other manufacturers were not using high-quality ingredients in their products. In one video a woman sits on the living room couch declaring that in the “true blue test” (an ingredient comparison test) Blue Buffalo products contained what she wanted and none of the stuff that she didn’t. The advertising stated that its food contains “NO chicken/poultry byproduct meals.”
Purina decided to fight back and have sued Blue Buffalo for profiting from misleading advertising. Blue Buffalo have argued that Purina has been defamatory in claiming that they mislead customers in their advertising. As a result Purina have asked the court for a declaration that they have not been defamatory.
Purina used a third-party laboratory to test Blue Buffalo pet food and they argue in their claim against Blue Buffalo that the company is misleading the public when they say that their ingredients are high-quality because their tests reveal byproducts are present. Blue Buffalo deny it.
In America the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus regulate advertising and they found that the advertisements of Blue Buffalo “to be falsely disparaging to competing pet food companies”.
Purina refers to some of the words that Blue Buffalo used in advertising such as:
It takes a lot to get me mad, but it really hit me when I realized that his big name dog food had chicken by-product meal as a first ingredient – not real meat. It felt like they fooled me, so I switched Leo to Blue Buffalo.
NAD found that big name pet food manufacturers were not actively concealing the truth about the ingredients in their products and ordered Blue Buffalo to correct its television advertisements and to remove unsubstantiated references to competitors and also to amend its website claims with respect to its true blue test. Blue Buffalo are appealing against the decision of NAD.
So we have a battle between two big pet food manufacturers about their honesty and whether they mislead their customers. It’s quite revealing really because it could be argued that both Purina and Blue Buffalo are being dishonest to a certain extent in that they sell dry cat food (described as kibble) in the USA in large quantities without any reference to the fact that it is unnatural and that there are a number of highly qualified veterinarians who question whether it is suitable for the domestic cat as a major part of their diet. Many people feed their cat dry cat food exclusively. I won’t go over the ground again but there is a large amount of information on the Internet about the detrimental aspects of dry cat food no matter how good the ingredients are.
I think we can justifiably say that both manufacturers are being somewhat hypocritical and in litigating their dispute through the courts in America they expose their hypocrisy to the paying public.
It is worth having a quick look at the word “byproduct meal”. It’s a word, as Blue Buffalo state, which is disliked by paying consumers. It refers to ground up chicken necks, feet, undeveloped eggs and intestines but is not supposed to include feathers. Consumers don’t like buying it because as they prefer to be the provider of high quality products for their cat or dog as it makes them feel better, so says the founder of Blue Buffalo, Mr Bishop.
One scientist states that byproducts are not actually that bad. In fact, he states that they are an excellent source of nutrition for pets (Kurt Venator, a Ph.D. vet employed by Purina).
If Purina win their lawsuit and if they get the judgement that they desire then Blue Buffalo may have to pay up to hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation so there is lots at stake.