The Pet Tree House - Where Pets Are Family Too : Purina Says Blue Buffalo Is 'Built on Lies': The Fighting Begins

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Purina Says Blue Buffalo Is 'Built on Lies': The Fighting Begins

At the executive offices of Blue Buffalo, in Wilton, Conn., Labradors and golden retrievers wander the halls, nosing around for lunch leftovers, and members of William Bishop’s 300-person workforce all call the 75-year-old founder and chairman Bill. A basketball and lacrosse player at Ohio-Wesleyan University in the late 1950s, Bishop, 6-foot-5, walks with a slight slouch but retains the loping gait of a college jock. His white hair thinning, he wears an open purple shirt over a black tee, blue jeans, a cloth belt decorated with skulls and crossbones, and running shoes the size of rowboats. He notes proudly that his sons, Billy and Chris, have senior executive jobs, making “the Buff,” as he calls the company, “a real family operation.”


Started in 2002 and propelled by advertising techniques the elder Bishop honed hawking Kool-Aid, Tang, and later SoBe, a beverage company he co-founded in the 1990s, Blue Buffalo last year tallied $1 billion in sales, making it America’s fastest-growing major purveyor of dog and cat food and the largest specializing in the all-natural kibble niche. 

He named his latest company in memory of Blue, a beloved family Airedale. The Buffalo part reflects his affection for cowboys, Indians, and Western kitsch. “Also it’s good to have a strong icon that people will remember,” he explains. “SoBe had the lizard. The Buff has the American buffalo.” Undercutting the Great Plains motif, orange-labeled bottles of Veuve Clicquot Champagne line shelves outside Bishop’s corner office. “You have to like to drink to work here,” he jokes. “We’ve had a lot to celebrate.”

The company’s rise can be measured not only by its near-ubiquitous retail presence but by pervasive advertising that Bishop boasts is deliberately “in-your-face,” and encourages “pet parents” to compare the Buff to the competition. Blue Buffalo’s television spots and Internet videos have become so familiar they’ve been parodied on Saturday Night Live. The mock commercial for “Blue River” dog food aired on NBC in April. Guest host Seth Rogen and SNL cast member Cecily Strong played the sort of overwrought consumers who philosophize about pet nutrition in Blue Buffalo’s actual ads. The characters suffer an emotional meltdown as they discuss what they’ve fed their bug-eyed pug mix, Peanut.

Purina is notably not amused. The St. Louis-based company, owned by the Swiss conglomerate Nestlé (NESN:VX), has manufactured feed and animal chow for 120 years. It controls about a third of the $20 billion-a-year pet food market but lately has seen customers lured away by such premium brands as Hill’s, Merrick, and Blue Buffalo.

Competition is one thing, but executives at Purina headquarters say they can’t abide Bishop’s advertising, which they claim is misleading. Contrary to its carefully cultivated reputation for authenticity, Blue Buffalo “is built on lies,” alleges Steven Crimmins, Purina’s normally even-tempered chief marketing officer for U.S. pet food. Although Bishop stresses his company is family run, “they’re owned by a big Wall Street firm [and] outsource all their manufacturing,” Crimmins says, not trying to disguise his indignation. “Their key ingredient claims aren’t true, and they have a history of exaggerating what their products do.”

In May, Purina sued Blue Buffalo in federal court in St. Louis for false advertising, commercial disparagement, and unjust enrichment. Bishop’s lawyers fired back with equally heated counterclaims about an unlawful Purina “smear campaign” seeking “to stem the exodus of Nestlé Purina customers to Blue Buffalo.” In a taunting open letter posted on his company’s website, Bishop accused the larger company of relying on “voodoo science” when it cited in its court papers lab tests supposedly showing that Blue Buffalo used poultry byproduct meal—an ingredient Bishop’s company promises “never” to include.

Purina v. Blue Buffalo has riveted vets, retailers, and everyone who follows the expanding market for fancy pet eats, says Jennifer Larsen, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of California at Davis veterinary school. “The emotional appeals to treat dogs and cats like human children have gone to an extreme,” she adds. “This case shows how far the manufacturers are willing to go to try to persuade consumers they’re right and the other guys are making it up.”

At a more basic level, the litigation illuminates the success of Bill Bishop, a classic ad guy who unapologetically cashes in on the market’s latest whims—human, canine, or other. Setting aside the merits of poultry byproduct meal (to which we’ll return), one can’t help but speculate that the wily Bishop has lured Purina into a fight where attention is the real prize.

 Before sweetened beverages and pet food, Bishop first had to sell himself. Just out of the U.S. Marines in 1962, he took the commuter train from Westchester County, N.Y., to Grand Central Terminal. Armed with a roll of dimes, he stood at a pay phone in the lobby of the old Pan Am Building, cold calling ad agencies in hopes of landing a job interview. BBDO said yes, he could come in for a tryout.


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