Pet food upstart looked to NC to help discover new markets

Politics and pet food don’t seem like they have much in common.

But when you’re a Canadian pet food upstart hoping to capture the Chinese market, politics can throw a kink in plans as much as the picky palate of a companion animal.

Just ask Robert Hales, plant and production manager at Niagara Pet Nutrition in Thorold, Ont. The high-quality dog and cat food producer’s business plan hinged exclusively on shipping to Asia, starting with China, before launching in the North American market.

Company ownership has expertise in the Chinese market, so it made sense to capitalize on that experience, their contacts and networks as more people in China adopt animals as companions, Hales explained.

“And a North American brand (of pet food) is much more preferred than a local brand,” he added.

Still, making inroads hasn’t been easy amid the political tensions between China and Canada, heightened by the case of the Two Michaels, and the United States’ extradition request of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou from Canada, in 2020.

Add a global pandemic and the ensuing challenges it brings to travel and shipping, and “just as we were about to start production, our target market was no longer available,” Hales said.

That’s when Niagara Pet Nutrition connected with Research & Innovation’s Business and Commercialization Solutions (BCS) for help. The company knew it had to find other markets to enter, but it had no insight into where to start.

Hales knew NC’s research division had previously partnered with Iron Will Raw pet food on food safety protocols, so it made sense to ask the BCS to look for new markets for Niagara Pet Nutrition as well.

 “The college did a fantastic job… They exceeded everything. They worked within the timeline they gave us, and they gave the ownership group a lot to look at and digest.” – Robert Hales, plant and production manager, Niagara Pet Nutrition

North America seemed obvious. However, it’s dominated by a small handful of multi-national pet food companies and Niagara Pet Nutrition would need help connecting with customers, Hales noted.

“The company branding was developed and based on the Asian market so we were also concerned whether that would resonate with a North American market,” he said.

The research team of Paula Reile, research program manager; Garrett Zimmer, research lead; and students Michelle Anne Culpe and Karla Perez Islas, started their in-depth market investigation last fall and provided Hales with some key insights.

“More than branding, our recipes and ingredient listings fit well into the category we want to be in, which is high-end pet food,” Hales said.

The company also fit into the pet food landscape as a medium-sized player and, the research team discovered, Mexico was the North American market that held the most promise thanks to free trade and tariffing regulations, and logistics.

Additionally, the research team determined the company’s target market to be Generation X and Millennial pet owners rather than brand-loyal Baby Boomers. They could be reached via a multi-faceted marketing campaign that included an online and e-commerce presence.

“Some of the things that came out in their research, we weren’t aware of or had an inkling of,” Hales said. “It was better to have it from a secondary or third source saying whether we were barking up the wrong tree.”

Now as Hales awaits the finishing touches on Niagara Pet Food Nutrition’s production facility, he and the company’s owners are setting their sights on Mexico.

“The college did a fantastic job,” he said. “They offered everything they said they would do. They exceeded everything. They worked within the timeline they gave us, and they gave the ownership group a lot to look at and digest.

“It’s been well-received by ownership and there’s a lot that will benefit us at Niagara Pet Nutrition and the region’s economy when we get up and running.”

Visit the Business & Commercialization Solutions website to learn more about the capabilities offered by the team or discover how initial feasibility research is helpful prior to engaging with Research & Innovation for applied research projects.