What do you get when a company that predates the Civil War decides to get into the dog treat business? Surprisingly, you get a brand that is squarely on the cutting edge of what today’s pet owners are looking to feed their canine family members.
Old Mill Pet Products is the newest subsidiary of H.J. Baker & Bro., Inc., a Westport, Conn.-based global supplier of agricultural feed and fertilizer that was founded back in 1850. The venture—the company’s first with consumer products—was officially launched in October 2013. However, according to director Louis Angerame, Old Mill’s roots go back a decade, when its fourth generation family-owned parent company began looking at the pet nutrition market.
“Ten years ago, we thought about getting into the dog food business,” he says. “It ended up not happening, but we spent a lot of time discussing how we could add value to the market. Then, last October, we decided to get into the high-end, ‘made in the USA’ treat business.”
While it is clearly on-trend with what many modern dog owners are looking to feed their pets, Old Mill Pet Products’ focus on ‘made in the USA’ is also a testament to the company’s old-fashioned commitment to quality. “This is our name, and we take that very seriously,” says Angerame. “Our first requirement was that we wanted to give pets the same quality we deliver in our other businesses. So, we knew that the products had to be based on high-quality protein sources, and they all had to be made and sourced in the USA. To me, that really means we want to have control over the ingredients and the quality of the product.”
The company spent months building a supply chain and production processes that enables Old Mill to identify its products as 100-percent made in the USA—a claim it plans to back up through a third-party certification firm. Then Old Mill created an initial 12-SKU line of baked dog treats, called Nature’s Bits. The line comprises six soft treats and six crunchy treats in traditional flavors like chicken, beef, peanut butter and salmon, as well as a couple of flavors that reflect evolving pet palettes.
“We’re doing a lot of things with game meats like bison and duck, and we’re developing some new ones,” says Angerame. “I think there is a trend away from the standard, processed treat.”
In addition to being formulated with high-quality protein sources as the first ingredient, Nature’s Bits treats—which will start shipping from an expanding list of pet specialty distributors this month—contain no artificial ingredients, grains or gluten. “We feel like those trends are healthy for people, and we want to apply those same trends to our pets,” says Angerame.
Old Mill will continue to follow those trends when expanding its list of product offerings, which Angerame hopes to grow to 24–28 SKUs by the end of 2014. Areas of particular focus right now, he says, are adding game meats to the company’s initial line of baked treats, as well as potentially developing a complementary line of jerky treats. In both cases, the company’s first step will be to build a reliable supply chain—and that process is going on now.
Building a Brand
While Old Mill Pet Products’ approach to dog treat formulation belies the fact that it is a newcomer to the pet care category, the company does still face the challenges of building brand awareness. It is a point that is not lost on Angerame. “Developing a product and manufacturing are relatively inexpensive,” he says. “You have to put a lot of money into marketing, and that’s what we’re doing.”
According to Angerame, those marketing efforts began with the creation of the packaging for Nature’s Bits—packaging that the director says combines eye-catching aesthetics with a clear message on what Old Mill is all about. “We’ve got a great graphic designer who put together packaging that really stands out,” he says. “It’s very bold. It’s very simple yet innovative. But while we want to grab the shopper’s attention with the packaging, we then want them to turn that bag over and see that the first ingredient is a protein—it’s chicken, it’s bison, it’s duck.”
Educating dog owners on not only Nature’s Bits products, but also healthy pet nutrition in general, will be a major focus of Old Mill’s marketing efforts—whether it is through product packaging, advertising or in-store events. “One of our goals is to do a lot of consumer education on what’s really good for their dogs,” says Angerame. “I think there is a lot of misinformation out there about quality. We’re supporting our retail partners with an in-house team that will spend a lot of time at the store level, talking about our products and educating consumers.”
To support the launch of its Nature’s Bits treat line, Old Mill Pet Products will be making a big splash with a variety of special promotions, beginning at Global Pet Expo in March. “We’re going to be at Global Pet Expo, and we’re doing a whole bunch of promotional programs around it,” says Angerame. “I can’t give out any details yet, but when you see what we’re doing, you’re going to be blown away. We will have a very large booth on the main floor, and we’ll have signs all over the place.”
Other promotional vehicles that Old Mill will be using to support the launch of Nature’s Bits include special point-of-purchase displays that are designed to acquaint consumers with the new brand and inspire trial, as well as a national sweepstakes campaign. “We have a very innovative designer creating a shipper with all of our SKUs in a high-end endcap display,” says Angerame. “We are doing in-store sampling programs, and we’re also doing a giveaway in August. We’re going to do a big national program for a giveaway of a pretty big ‘made in the USA’ prize.”
Despite all of the resources that are being put behind the launch of the Nature’s Bits brand, Angerame understands that all will be for naught if Old Mill cannot back up its splashy marketing strategy with products that are clearly healthy and high-quality. And in today’s market, that means being transparent in everything the company does.
“We’re going to have full transparency [through our company website],” says Angerame. “I think that is important for the end consumer. We will put our ingredient analysis and all of the testing we have done—at first-rate labs—online.”
This is a commitment that is in line with the most important message that Angerame hopes to convey to Old Mill Pet Products’ retailer partners and their customers. “We have a sense of history and commitment. We’re in businesses that we started over 100 years ago; so when we’re in something, we stay in it.
“You may see some other companies follow the trend of growing to a certain level of sales and then selling out to a bigger competitor—but not us. We’re not in this to make a quick buck and sell out. So our commitment extends beyond a purchase order. It goes all the way down to the end user. We want to give retailers the best possible experience with our products—that’s our commitment.”