Many entrepreneurs start a company because they’re passionate about solving a problem. There are competitors in the space, but they’re doing it badly–or worse–doing it wrong. When we’re passionate, wrong makes us crazy and drives us to say and do things we wouldn’t ordinarily do, like call out a competitor in public.
This is the story of Blue Buffalo, a “family run” pet food company with a passion for healthier dog food. All natural, no fillers or animal by-products like those “other” dog foods. For the sake of this discussion, we’re going to give Blue Buffalo the benefit of the doubt and say that their overt, public pokes at the leading dog food company Purina, were motivated by nothing more than passion. We’re going to accept that Blue Buffalo was on a mission to arm pet owners with the truth about dog food.
That still doesn’t make calling out your competition a wise business move, especially when the competition is out to protect their third of the $20 billion-a-year pet food market. What does a company like that do when they’re publicly attacked over the nutritional value of their product? Like a dog with a bone, they do some digging.
Purina uncovered a whole skeleton in Blue Buffalo closet; records that prove that a “substantial” and “material” portion of the company’s high-quality pet food contained poultry by-product meat. The ingredient itself isn’t a problem, the problem is that Blue Buffalo’s entire reputation and marketing campaign was allegedly based on a lie. A lie they used to thrash the competition.
Last year, Purina sued Blue Buffalo for false advertising, forcing the high-end pet food company to publicly admit the truth. Purina then took out an ad of their own in the form of a website called PetFoodHonesty.com. Here, they take Blue Buffalo to task for lying and for using that lie to best the competition. There’s also the matter of that premium price consumers were paying to get better dog food.
According to Purina, the entire Blue Buffalo concept was ridiculous because “by-products are a safe and nutritious ingredient in pet food.” So even if they weren’t lying about the ingredients, they were lying about their food being healthier but that’s a tougher sell than false advertising. Pet owners who buy premium food like the sound of “no by-products”. Whether it’s healthier or not is almost irrelevant; it’s the perception that counts. (From a reputation standpoint, not a veterinary standpoint.)
When dog owners find out that they’ve been feeding their dog mislabeled food — that’s scary. Scary enough to send them running back to Purina who does use by-products but is up front about it.
The takeaway here is that calling out your competition rarely works in your favor. As Andy Beal says in his book Repped:
“Unless you’re an NFL quarterback or WWE wrestler, talking trash makes you look petty, desperate, or just plain ugly. It doesn’t even matter if you trash-talk in a private forum or behind a protected Twitter stream, this stuff tends to leak out. There you were carefully crafting the perfect brand and now your own words have tarnished your reputation.”
If Blue Buffalo had kept the competition out of their advertising, Purina might not have felt so compelled to dig up the dirt. Given how it all turned out, Purina might have done them a favor. Blue Buffalo claims they were victimized by their co-packer. They say they weren’t aware of the ingredient switch. True or not, quality control is still their responsibility. They’re lucky that all they got was sued for false advertising. Imagine the fallout if a pet owner had sued because the food made their dog ill. That’s the kind of damage that puts companies out of business.
If you’d like to read the court transcript on the proceeding it’s available on Scribd and it’s a very informative, sometimes amusing read.