The Peak of Pet Nutrition
New Zealand-based Ziwi is innovating the pet nutrition category with a lineup of air-dried foods that provide an attractive alternative to feeding raw diets.
When Peter and Kimberly Mitchell set out to provide their dogs with a better diet, little did they know that they were starting a journey that would take them around the world to improve the way we feed our furry friends. Yet, that is exactly how the past 15 years have played out for the New Zealand-based couple since they founded Ziwi, an air-dried pet food company that offers a nutritious and affordable alternative to feeding raw.
“Together, the Mitchells had the perfect mix of what they needed to launch a new brand,” says Mary Helen Horn, president and executive director of Ziwi, noting that the combination of Kimberly’s passion and Peter’s expertise was an ideal recipe for creating a successful pet food company.
“They decided together that they would take her passion for pets and pet nutrition, and his experience in the meat industry, and set out to make the very best pet food they could in their home of New Zealand,” she explains.
What the Mitchells came up with was more than just a food, though; it was an entirely new approach to pet nutrition based on the idea that many dog and cat owners want the benefits of feeding their animals a raw diet without any of the potential drawbacks.
“They said, ‘We love what raw offers nutritionally, but we want to make it shelf stable, we want to make it without pathogenic bacteria, and we want it to feel as similar to feeding our current kibble as possible—meaning scoop-and-serve convenience (no rehydrating and no refrigeration or freezing required),’” says Horn.
The Mitchells ultimately decided that air-drying would be the ideal process to achieve all of the attributes they wanted in their food, but tailoring that process for their specific application was no simple feat. In fact, it took about three years of working with nutritionists, veterinarians and local Massey University’s animal food science division to develop Ziwi’s method of air-drying pet food.
“Even though air-drying has been used for centuries—it’s just an artisanal approach to preserving foods naturally—it had never been done when mixing a lot of ingredients together,” Horn explains. “That was the real challenge: how do you use that same slow and gentle air-drying process on recipes that may have 30 to 35 ingredients to make them complete and balanced?”
Adding complexity to the process was the Mitchell’s desire to keep the process as natural as possible. That meant eschewing preservation agents like salt, in favor of natural preservatives like vitamin E and mixed tocopherols.
The end result was a line of air-dried foods that Horn says delivers on all the points targeted from the outset—high levels of nutrition, convenience and safety—and has found an eager customer base among pet owners not only in New Zealand, but around the globe.
“It didn’t take very long for them to start expanding as they gained traction and air-drying proved to be something that consumers were interested in feeding and retailers were interested in stocking,” she says.
Not surprisingly, the U.S. and Canada are among the countries in which Ziwi has enjoyed success. But while the company entered North America nearly 10 years ago, Ziwi’s further expansion was slow and calculated as it built up the capacity to serve new markets. With that taken care of, the company now finds itself back in growth mode.
Today, Ziwi products—including not only air-dried foods, but also treats, chews and canned diets—are sold in nearly 30 countries, all of which continue to be served by the company’s family-owned manufacturing facilities in New Zealand, and for good reason.
“There is no doubt that by putting facilities in or sourcing from other countries, we could save a lot of cost; but to us, our selling feature—what we’re delivering—is the fact that we are New Zealand company and we own our manufacturing plants and we make all of our food in New Zealand,” Horn explains. “So, we source 100 percent of our proteins from New Zealand and we make 100 percent of our product in New Zealand. And we are committed to continuing that. It’s really helping to set us apart from the competition.”
While Ziwi remains dedicated to sourcing and producing its products in New Zealand, that’s not to say that the company hasn’t made adjustments to adapt to new markets along the way. For example, Horn says that when the Mitchells first launched their brand in the U.S., they quickly learned that they could not simply run this part of their business from Down Under.
“So, the founders moved to the U.S. for a handful of years to get the business started,” she explains. “They got our first distributors and helped us get a variety of accounts.”
Several years ago, Ziwi made two pivotal decisions. First, it relocated its U.S. office and brought in a new team that specialized in knowing the American pet market. Then the company launched a rebranding effort that included updating its products packaging to make it more appealing to North American consumers and retailers.
“Before the rebrand, the package didn’t really talk about the products’ points of differentiation,” says Horn, noting that it also featured 12 different languages. “It also didn’t have a see-through window, so you couldn’t see the food—and being that we were building a new category, people had a lot of questions about what it looked like.”
All of this made it difficult for North American consumers to understand the food, what makes it different than other options on the market, and how it should be fed to pets. Clearly, the redesign accomplished what it was intended to do, as Ziwi has quickly grown its presence on the shelves of many of the pet specialty channel’s top retailers, both big and small.
Of course, the time and effort that the company has put into spreading the word about its products, as well as the air-dried food category overall, has also been a great help.
“Our No. 1 objective was to educate retailers and consumers about the difference between dehydrated, freeze-dried and air-dried, and why air-dried needs to stand alone as a category,” Horn explains. “We’ve really invested in that over the past three years. Essentially, we have been telling two stories: one about New Zealand sourcing, and what that means for our products; and another about what air-drying is and why it’s different than freeze-dried and dehydrated.
“I believe that the effort we’ve put in has worked, because it is now a proven category. There have been about 18 other air-dried companies that have launched worldwide over the past 12 months.”
Still, that doesn’t mean Ziwi is content to rest on its laurels.
“We’re doing more education now, not less,” says Horn. “That means more consumer-focused marketing, including really advancing our social media campaigns. We want to make sure that consumers know not only about air-dried and sourcing from New Zealand, but also what makes us an innovator and different than any other company on the market. And we’re doing the same with retailers.”
That commitment to working closely with retailers—particularly the brick-and-mortar variety—has been, and will continue to be, key for the company. According to Horn, that’s because brick-and-mortar pet stores, in many ways, serve as the face of the Ziwi brand.
“We believe in the power of the brick-and-mortar retailer,” she says. “They are the ones who are converting customers every day and having that conversation on our behalf. So, we really believe in investing in those relationships and making them true partnerships. That is our No. 1 priority.”
With that in mind, Ziwi works hard to help traditional pet stores remain competitive with online outlets by keeping tight control over pricing and arming brick-and-mortar retailers with tools necessary to be successful in selling the company’s products.
“We put our resources into brick-and-mortar,” says Horn. “That is where we form partnerships, that is where we have a sales team, that is where we lean in. We want to help them navigate the changing world we’re in.”
Whether it’s in how the company makes its products or how it supports its retail partners, at the end of the day, Ziwi is all about staying true to the philosophy that made it successful in the first place.
“We are grounded in our roots, and that is what is going to set us apart in the long term,” says Horn. “That means we have a firm understanding of what air-dried was created to be, a dedication to remaining family owned and owning our own factories, and continuing to innovate and lead the space. It’s about doing the right thing for the right reasons.” PB