How Science & Trends Drive Innovation at Nestlé Purina

By Alicia Kelso |  June 6, 2016

At the pet foods giant Nestlé Purina Petcare, based in St. Louis, there’s a willingness to invest not just money — but substantial time — in products with breakthrough potential.

The company spent more than eight years from initial concept to market launch of its new Pro Plan Bright Mind dog food, intended to support brain health in older dogs. It involved work with hundreds of scientists — including neuroscientists and animal behaviorists — to study the impact of different food formulations on dogs. Following its 2015 launch, the Bright Mind product won a Best New Product Innovation award from PetSense, the pet supplies retailer.

(Photo © Whitney Curtis)

“You have to be very patient in an area like this, which is game changing,” says Nina Leigh Krueger, Purina’s President and Chief Marketing Officer, right. “It’s important for human health and pet health. We’re willing to take the time and invest the resources to get it right.”

Krueger says the company not only invests in long-term science, but studies trends in people’s diets and grocery shopping, and works to translate some of those into the pet food arena. Krueger and Dan Smith, Purina’s VP of Research and Development, recently spoke with InnoLead about Purina’s strategy behind this launch; its process for bringing new products to market; and how the company looks at product development from a pet’s perspective. Nestlé Purina owns numerous brands that regularly chalk up more than $1 billion in annual sales, including Friskies, Purina Dog Chow, Beneful, and Fancy Feast.

InnoLead: How would you describe Purina’s strategy for innovation?

Nina Leigh Krueger: Innovation is the foundation of our culture. We look at the issues pet owners are facing and we have multiple groups working on them. So we have ideas coming from our research and development group, marketing brand teams, an emerging growth group that is looking at things five, ten, fifteen years out. Innovation comes from our manufacturing plants and our associates. We really take a long and wide view when we look at innovation. That includes everything from products to processes to package design.

We do have a few products over the last couple of years that we think are breakthrough. From a science perspective, we [are developing products to promote] healthy aging, digestive health, healthy metabolism.

Tracking Consumer Trends, and Imagining a ‘Future State’ for Pets

InnoLead: How to you find out what is ‘on trend,’ especially from pet owners?

Dan Smith: We work with consumers to understand what’s on trend not just now, but in the future. …The area of nutrition is at the heart of what’s important to us. If we look at consumers, they’re interested in aging, metabolism, oral health.

On my side, I try to look at things from a pet’s perspective. What are the areas with opportunities for pets, where we can do something meaningful and improve their lives? 

InnoLead: How do you approach looking at strategies from a pet’s perspective?

(Photo © Whitney Curtis)

Smith: We play an imagination game on the R&D side. We imagine a future state for a pet and believe there are solutions that can be brought forward for the pet’s life. So, with aging for example, we want to try to imagine a food we could offer to pets that could help an older dog retain a healthy mind.

When we do research, that [perspective] takes a while to validate. Can we help an older dog act like a puppy? We went after it, and it took us a number of years to find a nutritional solution that could do that, which was with the Pro Plan Bright Mind launch last year. (See below for a video of Smith.)

InnoLead: What was the R&D process behind that launch?

Smith: Through our research, we found that when dogs get to be about 7 to 8 years old, they require nutritional changes because they’ve developed some metabolism issues and [insufficient energy is getting] to the brain. We found we could…basically alleviate problems that occur by adding botanical oils – MCT oils we call them [medium-chain triglycerides.]

With this formula, we basically can induce more energy to the brain. That’s when we saw older dogs’ activity levels change; they slept more at night, and were more active during the day. They wanted you to throw the ball and they weren’t scared of going up the stairs anymore.

We also worked with cognitive scientists and neuroscientists to see how we age – pets and humans.

We didn’t stop there. We are now working on other nutrient blends which also help with brain health. There is a rich opportunity before us to improve even further in the areas of cognitive or brain health. We are also working on cats.

Measuring the Potential Impact of New Products

InnoLead: How did you measure and test these results to know the product was a success?

Smith: One of the unique things for us is we don’t do invasive studies [on animals.] That’s a reason it takes a while. When we measure results, it takes years sometimes. We have to monitor changes in pets over a period of time when feeding them the diet.

Sometimes, we do that in homes of consumers who have volunteered their pets, or we do it with our own pets, or with the pets in our facilities, the kennels we operate.

We also have targeted certain behavioral clinics. When we saw results with our own pets, we focused on collaboration with behaviorists. [They] are watching and observing with pets over time. Sometimes it takes two weeks to see it in a pet, sometimes it’s four. On average, we saw some improvement within four weeks.

InnoLead: Are the scientists employed at Purina or are they independent?

Smith: Both. Some are in our employment, but we also have a large group of external people. In an area like brain health, we have external people that join our internal people and help guide our direction on research. It’s very collaborative. We have panels of vets, people doctors, scientists, behaviorists, and PhDs. We have probably 500 or more global scientists [including nutritionists and veterinarians] who work with us on cognitive health.

We look at who in that area can help us get to that breakthrough. If they’re internal, great — if not, we care more about the discovery.

How Marketing Gets Involved

InnoLead: When and how do you get marketing involved in the research process?

Krueger: While Dan and his team are working on the science part of it, the marketing group is working on how we communicate with consumers and finding out their perceived gaps or values. Dan can make the most wonderful science, but we have to bring it to life. We do that by spending a lot of time with consumers doing research – going into their homes and finding out how they interact with their pets. It helps Dan when he’s looking at research to know what is more important, what language is meaningful. The consumer is at the center of everything.

Smith: It’s a stage-gate process. When ideas hit the marketing side, we’re working on concept gates – our operational colleagues are working on their gates, our colleagues in manufacturing are working on what it takes to get this idea into factories so we can mass produce this and get this sold, etc. Some [gates] are more R&D-led and some are led by marketing. We basically just go through those gates and ask the right questions.

InnoLead: What trends are you seeing and how to you keep up with what is new?

Krueger: Through our innovation efforts, it’s important for us to help shape trends. But we look at trends in humans, in science, all over the world. We look at sustainability and at food as an experience, which is a big piece of what humans want these days. How do we bring that to pet owners?

We put these trends through a filter. What’s most important? We imagine with R&D and a technical application group, and that’s where many ideas come from.

InnoLead: Can you provide an overview of what your company’s trendspotters do, and how they fit into the equation of R&D?

Smith: As we look for inspiration for our innovation efforts, Purina engages trendspotters across a variety of interest areas, who live and work in many locations across the country, including Boulder, Colorado. They listen to consumers and experts in pet care and other categories to gain insights into the future of care, nutrition, and health of pets, which has been a foundation of our culture since we began operating 90 years ago. Our Boulder outpost, which reports into the Emerging Growth Group of our Marketing Department, also creates immersive experiences for many people in Purina who are engaged directly in innovation.

Challenges and What’s Next

InnoLead: What are some of your biggest challenges?

Krueger: Translating trends from humans to pets. Clean eating is a big trend, for example, and our job is to take that trend and bring it to life. But pets need different nutrients than humans [so they] don’t always fit trends, like clean eating. Another example is that dogs don’t necessarily need ‘only’ protein, but that is a consumer-perceived benefit and when that becomes a trend, it’s not necessarily what’s best for the pet. How do you formulate that to meet consumer trends while making sure their pets get what they need? How do we best translate that?

InnoLead: What is the innovation team at Purina working on next?

Smith: Pet food is going in two [directions] – different philosophies: One is science-driven and one is human food-driven. Healthy weight is becoming a big trend. Sustainability is coming into pet food. A small project we’re working on is alternative protein sources becoming more important. Crickets, for example, are big in other parts of the world. Insects are prevalent because of their protein, and we’ve created a food that uses cricket protein. It’s not a big launch – alternative proteins are typically expensive – but we will investigate its benefits.

We’re also working on a cat formula, Longevis, that is launching in January that focuses not just on cognitive health, but on health in general, such as metabolism, skin, and coat health. As cats age, their ability to metabolize fats changes and affects things such as the softness of their coats. We are continuing to work on cognitive health. What behavioral changes will you see in a cat with this new formula? One change we’re seeing is they’re up more at night, they’re nocturnal. They’re driving toward younger life behaviors. We’re just looking for different ways to serve our pets.