Nestlé Purina launched an offensive this week against Blue Buffalo, accusing the rival pet-food maker of lying to customers about its use of natural ingredients.
The St. Louis-based company filed a federal lawsuit against its Connecticut-based competitor, saying independent tests show that Blue Buffalo uses chicken byproducts and corn in its products — despite claims to the contrary.
Nestlé Purina PetCare, a unit of Swiss-based Nestlé and maker of Beneful and Friskies, is suing The Blue Buffalo Co. for false advertising, disparagement and unjust enrichment.
The pet-food industry in recent years has seen a trend toward premium foods, with consumers showing more willingness to spend more on food perceived to be better for their animals. Sales of more expensive brands rose 68 percent from 2002 to 2012, compared with 19 percent for midpriced brands and 8 percent for economy brands, according to Euromonitor International.
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According to the lawsuit, Blue Buffalo spent $50 million in national print, television, and Internet advertising last year promoting its products as superior to competitors, including Purina, Royal Canin, Pedigree and Iams.
Late Tuesday, Blue Buffalo issued a letter to its customers, reiterating its marketing claims and tossing a counterpunch at Purina.
“It is an easy thing to make unsubstantiated claims, put them in a lawsuit and then publish them all over the Web to disparage and defame a company. It is quite another thing to prove those allegations,” the company’s founder, Bill Bishop, wrote in the letter.
“We will prove these and other matters in court with good reliable evidence, and we look forward to disproving the voodoo science that Nestlé Purina relied on to support their outrageous allegations,” he wrote.
The company’s website allows visitors to compare a competitor’s dog or cat food against those made by Blue Buffalo. The results of those comparisons show that Blue Buffalo’s products don’t have chicken byproducts or corn.
One ad showed a pet owner appearing shocked when she learned that “big-name pet foods” contain chicken byproduct meal, prompting her to switch to Blue Buffalo.
But Nestlé Purina said in its court filing that those ingredients were found during testing by an independent lab hired to examine Blue Buffalo food from retail stores on the East and West coasts. The company also said testing shows many of Blue Buffalo’s products contain artificial preservatives.
“With tens of millions of dollars in advertising and a small army of in-store marketers, Blue Buffalo has built a brand targeted at ingredient-conscious pet owners,” Purina’s lawsuit alleges. “It has become increasingly clear, however, that Blue Buffalo’s brand is built instead on a platform of dishonesty and deception.”
That a dominant player in any industry would go on the offensive against a smaller competitor comes as a surprise to some marketing experts.
It’s more common for market leaders to ignore smaller firms, even when they find themselves under attack by the aggressive style of advertising that’s been used by Blue Buffalo, said Haim Mano, chairman of the marketing department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“Typically, the No. 1 doesn’t respond. They stay quiet,” Mano said.
In this instance, he said Purina’s lawsuit may suggest the company is losing some of its share of the increasingly important premium pet-food market.
“Purina may have felt the pinch a little bit,” Mano said.
Yet this is a move that carries some risk. Particularly if the public comes to view Purina’s attack as a giant corporation bullying a much smaller competitor, said Mark Arnold, a marketing professor at St. Louis University.
“It could turn even more ugly from a public-relations perspective,” Arnold said.
That the company is willing to risk that sort of backlash may say a lot about Purina’s desire to defend its position in that higher-end market.
“It really suggests this is essential to the brand success of Purina in the future,” he said.
Purina hasn’t stopped at the lawsuit. Hours after the court filing, the company launched a new consumer-oriented website, www.petfoodhonesty.com, where it lays out its case against Blue Buffalo.
“This is not an action we take lightly,” Purina’s vice president and chief marketing officer Steven Crimmins said in a statement. “We believe consumers deserve honesty when it comes to the ingredients in the food they choose to feed their pets.”
Nestlé Purina is asking the court to force Blue Buffalo to run corrective advertising, reflecting that its products do contain chicken byproducts.
“Unless Blue Buffalo’s activities cease, Blue Buffalo will unjustly profit from sales of its products that are based on consumer reliance on the false and deceptive comparisons that it has made and is making about its products as compared to those of competitors, including Purina,” the lawsuit states.
This isn’t the first time Blue Buffalo has run afoul of its competitors.
In March, the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, the investigative arm of the self-regulating advertising industry, found that Blue Buffalo engaged in misleading ad practices regarding claims about rival products. That followed a challenge by Kansas-based Hill’s Pet Nutrition.
As a result, the organization recommended that Blue Buffalo remove allegations from ads claiming its rivals mislead consumers. Blue Buffalo said it would appeal some of organization’s findings to the National Advertising Review Board.
For some, these aggressive actions represent a positive step toward more honesty in advertising.
“While I can’t comment on whether Purina has always been honest themselves, I can say that brands that want to thrive in today’s cynical environment must come clean with today’s consumers,” Kelly O’Keefe, a professor of creative-brand management at Virginia Commonwealth University, said in an email. “We can only hope that more brands will challenge each other to be more truthful and responsible.”
— Information from The Associated Press is included.