Under the leadership of founder and CEO Michael Landa, Nulo Pet Food is changing the conversation about how pet owners nourish their four-legged companions.
In a dynamic product category like pet food, where new brands and nutritional concepts seem to spring up in the blink of an eye, it is not easy to stand out from the pack—but Nulo Pet Food has found a way. Not satisfied with the conventional go-to-market strategies shared by many other pet food manufacturers, founder and CEO Michael Landa and his team are blazing new paths with almost every aspect of the Nulo brand, from formulation to distribution to marketing.
Not surprisingly, pet specialty retailers of all shapes and sizes are taking notice. One such retailer is Michael Levy, president of Pet Food Express. “The [pet food] field is so cluttered with choices, and we have only so much room to put new products in, but we felt that Nulo’s unique proposition warranted trying out,” says Levy. “We are excited to see how it performs in our stores.”
In a roundabout way, the story of Nulo Pet Food started with a road trip from Los Angeles to Colorado that founder Landa took with his black Labrador Retriever Max II in 2001. Max was actually not supposed to be along for this particular trip, but Landa was uneasy with the pet sitting options that were available for his four-legged friend, who had just been diagnosed with bladder cancer. “I tried to find a pet sitter for Max, and it was an awful experience,” he says. “I didn’t want to put him through the stress of flying, so I canceled my flight and drove to Colorado with him. It was really my only option.
“Somewhere in Utah, a light bulb went on, and I realized that [pet sitting] was a fragmented industry and there was definitely a need for it in [Landa’s home city of Los Angeles]. That was the turning point where I decided to become an entrepreneur.”
After doing his due diligence on the pet sitting market and creating a strategic plan, Landa launched The Pet Staff, which is now one of the largest pet sitting and dog walking companies in the U.S. “We have about 185 pet sitters right now doing 11,000 visits per month,” says Landa. “At any one time, we have 15,000 to 18,000 pets in our care.”
While his first venture was a clear success, the entrepreneur in Landa still wasn’t done. This time, driven by the prevalence of diabetes among The Pet Staff’s feline and canine clients, in 2008 he turned his focus to addressing what he perceived to be a deficiency in pet nutrition. “We were being asked, at an alarming rate, for pet sitters who could administer insulin,” says Landa. “We were hiring vet techs as fast as we could and having veterinarians train our staff on how to give these shots. Then one day I stepped back and said, ‘There is something clearly wrong with the food supply.’ I didn’t know what it was at the time, but I knew that there must be something precipitating these outcomes.”
Determined to take a better approach to pet nutrition than what could be found on the market at the time, Landa—a biomedical engineer by training —set out to learn everything he could about the science behind pet food. Eventually, his research brought him to a leading expert in the field of pet food formulation. “Our scientist taught me a ton about nutrition, ingredients and sourcing,” says Landa. “And we worked together to build the first line for Nulo, called Nulo Naturals.”
With a nutritional concept in hand, Landa moved to Austin, Texas, to get his fledgling pet food company off the ground. “I wanted to be in the central time zone, so I could be close to production and warehousing, and Austin put me within an hour or two away from where everything was happening,” he says.
Austin turned out to be a great choice for reasons beyond simply logistics. “It is a very outdoors-oriented community, and a very athletic minded community,” Landa says, noting that these traits fit well with Nulo’s health- and performance-based approach to pet nutrition, as well what would become the cornerstone of the company’s unique brand marketing strategy.
In late 2010, Nulo Naturals officially hit the market with a web-based, direct-to-consumers model that looked almost like a pet-centric version of Nutrisystem. “You could go on and create a meal plan by picking different foods,” Landa explains. “The concept was to help manage pet obesity and diabetes.”
The company’s online direct-to-consumer nutrition program ultimately turned out to be too cost-prohibitive. However, not long after its launch, Nulo caught the attention of Whole Foods, which brought its products into some of its stores, eventually going national with the brand in 2012. “We were initially very focused on the natural grocery segment, and growing within that area,” says Landa.
Then, in July 2012, the company launched its first pet-specialty food line, called Nulo Lifestyles. “What we did early on, in an effort to get our legs under us, is partner with direct buy accounts—multi-unit operators that could self distribute,” says Landa. “That allowed us to work closely with retailers and really understand what their customers wanted in a premium product line, ultimately paving the way for our newest line, Nulo FreeStyle.”
Understanding that continued growth in pet specialty would require expanded distribution in pet stores and a heavy investment in brand marketing, Nulo pulled out of the natural grocery channel and spent the past several months reshaping its strategy for selling to pet specialty retailers. One element of that strategy included forming a single national partnership—with PetSmart—a partnership that Landa says was not entered into lightly. “We worked closely with our direct independents to craft our strategy [for coexisting with PetSmart],” he says. “And as a result, we have a lot of retailers telling us that we are the first company to approach it the right way.”
Nulo developed two distinct product lines for the pet specialty channel—Nulo MedalSeries for PetSmart and Nulo FreeStyle for independent pet stores. It was a process that Landa felt was important to get right.
“[Independent retailers] want transparency, but most of all, they want integrity,” he says. “These are accounts that are working hard for our brand, and I don’t want to surprise them. So we have always been very upfront about our partnership with PetSmart. We spent hours going through all of the details with our independent customers, including all of the formulas, and they really appreciate the fact that we developed both lines with particular consumer demographics in mind and kept everything separated.”
Both lines are clearly distinguishable from one another in everything from package design to formulation. For example, while PetSmart’s Nulo MedalSeries line includes chicken recipes, the Nulo FreeStyle line for independent retailers uses no chicken or egg protein in any of its canine kibble products.
Included in the Nulo FreeStyle line are six dry and five canned recipes for dogs (including a puppy and senior formulas, three adult varieties and a weight-control formula), as well as two dry and six canned recipes for cats (including kitten and indoor cat formulas).
All of the products are grain-free and feature 80 to 85 percent meat- and fish-based protein. They are low in carbs and low glycemic—using ingredients like chickpeas, lentils and sweet potatoes—and include a patented probiotic to aid in digestion. All Nulo diets are made and sourced in the USA, and the formulas reflect the company’s commitment to health- and performance-based nutrition—a commitment that is also evident in the company’s marketing efforts.
Led by vice president of marketing Jeremy Humble, Nulo’s branding strategy is as unique as its product lines. “Jeremy has worked with large pet food brands before and has a deep understanding of the premium pet consumer,” says Landa. “The first thing he said was, ‘We need to market outside of the pet food aisle.’ He saw that we were right in the middle of all these massive companies with huge budgets screaming, ‘Our food is better!’ Jeremy encouraged us to move away from pet-focused events and turned our attention to events populated with active-lifestyle consumers—things that were going on every weekend in Austin.”
The impact was immediate. Landa says that the consumers who participated in the events Nulo was attending were naturally receptive to the company’s concept for pet nutrition, because in many ways it mirrors the way they nourish their own bodies for optimal health and performance. This approach has proven so successful, that Nulo has made it the foundation for its brand marketing.
“To take the conversation a step further, we’ve partnered with a handful of Olympic athletes who are already feeding Nulo, to tap into the lifestyle and demographic of the most active-minded athletes, utilizing them as a platform to showcase how we think about food and nutrition,” says Landa, who himself once competed in the Olympic trials for swimming. “It’s really about looking at food as fuel for the body, and working alongside these athletes has given us a great opportunity to have deeper conversations with like-minded people.”
Throughout the year, the company will be releasing a series of testimonial-based videos, which feature various Olympic athletes discussing the healthy and active lifestyle that they share with their pets and why Nulo foods fit that lifestyle perfectly. It is a campaign that perfectly reflects the company’s new tagline: “Healthier Together.”