CSR Initiatives Boost Pet Products' Image, Sales

Last December, shoppers who visited the Kroger store in New Castle, Ind., had the chance not only to buy groceries, but also to adopt a pet from the New Castle-Henry County Animal Shelter.

The store even paid the $95-per-pet adoption fee, and handed out free pet food and toys to customers who took home a furry new family member.

That event is just one example of how retailers are reaching out in ways that go beyond merchandising — and it demonstrates how the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) has made its way to the pet category.

“Research shows that consumers expect the companies behind their brands to act responsibly,” says Paul Cooke, VP, trade and industry relations at St. Louis-based Nestlé Purina PetCare, a company that contributed more than $31.2 million in pet supplies, food, litter and funding to U.S. pet shelters and community groups in 2016. “Consumers in general are looking to be more socially responsible in their own lives, and they want to make purchases from companies that share their values.”

Good for Pets, Good for the Community

How important is CSR to your bottom line? Very, recent industry data show.

More than nine in 10 Millennials would switch brands to one associated with a cause, according to the 2015 Cone Communications/Ebiquity Global CSR study. Members of this important demographic group are also willing to pay more for products from companies that are committed to issues they care about, the study found.

Many pet product companies, in fact, now count products and programs that embrace CSR as cornerstones of their business strategies.

Nestlé Purina PetCare, for example, sources a percentage of the corn in its pet food from the lower Wabash River region, and works with The Nature Conservancy to reduce the flow of nutrients and soil sediment along the Wabash River in Indiana and Illinois. Nestlé Purina also sponsors education programs for children, such as Mutt-i-Grees, which highlights the unique characteristics of shelter pets and reinforces such critical skills as empathy, cooperation and ethical decision-making, and the Purina Family Pet Center at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, where patients and their families can reunite with their pet during the treatment process.

Meanwhile, the Pedigree Adoption Drive, a campaign initiated in 2005 by Pedigree Brand, and the Pedigree Foundation, which focuses on providing grants to shelters and rescues, are among Mars Petcare’s most visible CSR initiatives.

“We funded grants in 2016 that focused on big-dog and senior-dog adoptions — a trend that is on the rise,” notes Lisa Campbell, Pedigree Foundation board member and director of marketing communications at McLean, Va.-based Mars Petcare. “Since 2008, Pedigree Foundation has awarded more than $6.1 million through more than 4,700 grants to shelters and rescue organizations.”

The company is now preparing to introduce Better Cities for Pets, an initiative “that aims to create enough places for every dog and cat to live, visit and play by supporting shelters, homes, businesses and parks,” says Jam Stewart, Mars Petcare’s director of corporate communications. “Through this program, we’ve also created partnerships with local nonprofits, business and government partners.”

Further, Azusa, Calif.-based Cardinal Pet runs The Crazy Pet Children’s Foundation, which awards grants to kids’ educational foundations, animal foundations or nonprofits with programs that teach children about pet care, as well as initiatives that offer hands-on experiences with animals.

Marketing Magic for Retailers

Collaborating with vendors on programs with a CSR component can help boost sales in the pet aisle.

Purina Cat Chow’s 2016 Nutrition to Build Better Lives promotion is one example. For every bag of Purina Cat Chow purchased in July last year, the brand donated one meal to Rescue Bank, a nonprofit that distributes pet food and other supplies to local shelters and rescue organizations across the country.

Purina Supports Our Heroes, a program that supports the Dogs on Deployment, Warrior Canine Connection and Pets for Vets organizations, is another of the company’s CSR initiatives.

“It takes place during the fourth quarter, when pet category sales tend to experience a slight decline,” Cooke explains. “The donation is tied to coupon redemption for brands like Dog Chow, Friskies, Tidy Cats and Beneful, and the promotion is a fully integrated effort between Purina and our customers, supported by everything from in-store merchandising and POS to FSI and online display. We provide merchandising solutions, in-store POS and customer-specific promotions in support. In many instances, these promotions may fill up half of a page of the retailer’s’ weekly circular with display support in-store.”

Mars Petcare’s Pedigree You Buy. We Give. initiative, which donates healthy meals to shelter dogs every time a consumer purchases the pet food, is another CSR program that has met with success at retail.

Advice for Retailers

How can retailers embrace CSR in the pet category? Encouraging public and private organizations to work together is one suggestion.

“Partnering with a shelter to host an adoption weekend is something we’ve seen great success with,” says Stewart, while grocers like Cincinnati-based Kroger have as well. “Four out of 10 dogs and seven out of 10 cats never make it out of a shelter. And, as people focused on pets day in and day out, we know those numbers are way too high.

“We know that lack of space can be a barrier to pet ownership,” she continues. “So another area in which we’d encourage retailers to get involved is helping to build and beautify parks and trails where pet parents can bring their pets.”