Dr. Christine Bessent, DVM, CEO of Herbsmith, Inc., discusses how her holistic veterinary practice and commitment to educating retailers and consumers alike has shaped her company.
Pet Business: What is Herbsmith’s approach to creating pet health and wellness products? What role do herbal ingredients play in your products?
Dr. Christine Bessent: Herbsmith was developed as an extension of my holistic veterinary practice. In addition to being a holistic veterinarian, I have advanced training in chiropractic, acupuncture and herbs for animals. As I was treating patients all day, I thought about how I could be a positive influence on more dogs than I saw physically, and [the answer] was by partnering with good retailers. By partnering with good retailers, I was able to extend that positive effect to more and more animals.
All of our products are based on my view as a holistic veterinarian. In the beginning, we developed condition-specific products, which are herbs that are really good at addressing issues that are commonly seen—arthritis, allergies, immune support and bladder health problems. They were these fabulous herbal formulas that I had been using for 20-plus years in my veterinary practice. I knew they worked well, they were very safe, and they were easy to apply.
Then, as a holistic veterinarian, I would see dogs with [digestive issues], and I would tell the owners to go get a probiotic/prebiotic with digestive enzymes, and if they could find one with soothing herbs, that would be wonderful. They would end up coming back to me saying there is no such thing. So, I set out to see if I could develop a product like that. Microflora is one of our biggest-selling products, and it came out of a real need in the industry. It basically combines four different products for treating GI upset; and it’s affordable and very effective. It took about two years to develop Microflora, which represented a shift for us into health and wellness. We look at what is available on the market to see how we can add to it with products that complement what’s out there or are better than what is out there.
As a veterinarian with a passion for herbs, I love them and understand them. I like the idea that they are somewhere between food and drugs; they’re stronger than food, but they’re not as strong as drugs. So, they have a functional effect, but they don’t have all of the side effects of pharmaceuticals. Of course, as a veterinarian, I would never say that herbs should replace pharmaceuticals, but they can serve as a complement.
PB: How have consumer perceptions about herbal health and wellness products evolved over the years? Is the customer base for these products growing?
Bessent: As pharmaceuticals have become stronger, they’ve also brought more side effects along with them. And I think there has been a grassroots movement among people to be proactive in their own lives, by doing things like reducing their cholesterol [intake] rather than ending up having to take a pill every day. That, of course, has been transposed on their animals as well. The use of herbs has really come out of that grassroots movement. People have seen the logic of using something that maybe isn’t as strong [as pharmaceuticals], but over the long haul will be very beneficial and won’t have the side effects.
Things have changed dramatically since I got into holistic veterinary medicine. Herbs were initially thought of as something like voodoo. Now, herbs are so much more accepted, and they are finally getting their rightful place in pet care. Of course, if your dog is hit by a car, you wouldn’t think of using herbs. But if your dog is afraid of thunderstorms, or has some other chronic, low grade problem, herbs can absolutely be helpful in that situation.
PB: What sets Herbsmith products apart from other herbal health and wellness brands on the market?
Bessent: I think what sets us apart is our integrity. My veterinary experience has always been based on integrity, and I’ve brought that to the development of our products. We do extensive testing to make sure our products do what they’re supposed to do, and they will have a positive effect on the lives of animals.
We also do a tremendous amount of education. To educate consumers, I do a lot of writing and webinars, in addition to other things. And for retailers, we do a lot of educational events, so they can be informed on the benefits of herbs and how to use them.
PB: How can retailers educate themselves on the benefits of herbal health and wellness products? How can retailers then effectively pass this information on to customers?
Bessent: We have an Herbsmith certification program on our website (herbsmithtraining.com). Basically, it is a 45-minute program where retailers listen to [a series of lectures] and then they are quizzed on each topic. I know that other companies offer similar programs, and that can be a great way to train.
We also offer a health and wellness booklet that is not about Herbsmith at all, but rather just about providing a good, solid education. It covers topics like how much glucosamine should a dog get, and how many calories should a 50-lb. dog get each day versus a 20-lb. dog. It’s about 40 pages long, and we make it available for free to retailers that can then give them to their customers. My feeling is if consumers know better, they buy better. We want them to make educated decisions.
We also do webinars where we will educate retailers on a particular topic one week. Three weeks later, we will do the exact same webinar, but this time we gear it toward consumers. We send flyers and emails and do Facebook campaigns for each of those [participating] stores, so they’re the source of knowledge. The great thing is that the consumers who take part in those events come back to the retailer to make a purchase. We also do personalized, interactive webinars for stores, where we can talk back and forth.