Ep. 3: Planet-Friendly Pet Food with Caroline Buck of Petaluma

Keith is joined by Caroline Buck, Co-founder and CMO at Petaluma. Petaluma is on a mission to create a more sustainable and humane agricultural system by using ingredients that offer optimal nutrition, reduced ecological harm, and humane treatment of farmworkers and animals. They discuss her career trajectory from tech to CPG, the economics of sustainable pet food, choices about distribution, direct to consumer, Amazon, brick and mortar, and much more.

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Keith Anderson: Welcome to Decarbonizing Commerce, where we explore what’s new, interesting, and actionable at the intersection of climate innovation and commerce. I’m your host, Keith Anderson, and together we’ll meet entrepreneurs and innovators reinventing retail, e commerce, and consumer products through the lenses of low carbon and commercial viability.

Hi everyone and welcome back to the Decarbonizing Commerce podcast. I’m your host Keith Anderson. Today’s guest is Caroline Buck, co founder and CMO of Petaluma, a radically sustainable pet food brand. Caroline and I get into all kinds of fascinating topics like she and her partners Interesting career trajectories from high tech jobs into CPG, some of the economics of pet food broadly and sustainable pet food, choices about distribution, direct to consumer, Amazon, and brick and mortar, and much more.

It was a really interesting conversation, and there’s even a cameo from my best friend Otto, who’s also a big fan of Petaluma. So, here’s Caroline.

Caroline, welcome to the show. Great to be with you and thanks for joining us.

Caroline Buck: Thank you so much for having me.

Keith Anderson: Well, when I discovered, you, it was through your, your company’s food, which my dog Otto, really enjoys. And I just thought it was fascinating that you have sort of come from a background in software to starting a radically sustainable pet food company.

So I thought maybe we could start just by hearing a bit about, your trajectory, into CPG and specifically sustainable CPG.

Caroline Buck: I’d be happy to. Yeah, it’s definitely not a conventional route. But as a bit of background, so my co founder of Petaluma is also my husband. His name is Garrett Wymore. Garrett worked in pet tangentially before this. So we have a, a more of a concrete tie to the pet space than, maybe it would appear from the outside. So both of us are working, in tech jobs. Garrett works for a company called Whistle Labs. They make a GPS tracker, it goes on a dog’s collar, in addition to helping you find your dog when it gets lost, it also tracks some biometric data and can do some interesting things with it. And so he was responsible for kind of using the data that the whistle would throw off about, you know, how often is your dog drinking water?

Are they slowing down? Is that trending up or trending down? Stitching that together with some health data, particularly after Whistle was acquired by Mars Pet Care. Mars is the biggest pet food manufacturer in the United States. They’re known to most of us as like the candy bar company, but they are quietly massive in the pet world.

They also are the owner, I think, of the largest veterinary clinics now in the United States. They have a very large purview into the pet world. And it’s very interesting, for, for those not familiar with the pet industry, it’s very dominated by a handful of CPG companies. So I like Nestle, Purina, Mars, Hills, maybe one or two others that make up, you know, 80 percent market share in the pet space.

It’s a, it’s a scale business, so it kind of makes sense in some capacities, but I think with the advertising you get these days, it can seem like. Other companies are bigger than, these behemoths, but they still largely run the industry. So Garrett was getting some exposure to the world of Mars, and to the world of veterinary developed, formulas for dogs, and learned about kind of this interesting, the, kind of the interesting reality of how protein ends up in dog food, is, can be quite strange, and also there’s lots of really interesting applications for alternative and plant based proteins, if they were marketed properly, they have the scientific backing to be digestible and healthy sources for dogs, but they needed kind of these champion brands to go the extra mile of explaining to customers, you know, that the dog that sleeps in your bed is not a carnivorous wolf, so that was kind of permeating between the two of us, that was kind of percolating, that was in the air, we were talking a lot about pet food and, we’re huge dog lovers ourselves, we have, one dog who’s 11 that we’ve had since we graduated from college, and another dog who’s six, huge dog people.

And I was working, as you mentioned, the top in tech I had of various startup tech jobs. Was interested in doing something entrepreneurial and it ended up being very related, but just was kind of similar to probably a lot of people who listen to your podcast. Had a just kind a overwhelming climate anxiety. I know I do something in the environmentally, friendly space and was kind of searching for ways to build a meaningful, meaningful company that could address maybe a, a less obvious aspect of reducing your footprint. I had cut out meat myself as part of that, partially because of animal rights and ethics, but partially because of this, just growing sense of dread about where, human accelerated climate change was going.

So if you kind of mash those two people up, you get Petaluma pretty quickly, but, it makes a bit more sense. Probably knowing where we were coming from, but it felt like the right moment to try to tell a different story about pet food. It’s a really interesting space to make a difference in because it’s mostly a marketing challenge, more than a science challenge. And there’s a lot of brands telling different stories that can be very confusing to a customer, but that’s, that’s kind of where we landed and that’s kind of how it came to be.

Keith Anderson: Well, and do you think it’s going to take someone, not to say you’re totally outsiders, because as you explained, your husband has some prior exposure and, but do you get the sense that. It actually will take, sort of industry outsiders to move at the speed and scale necessary to really transform the category?

Caroline Buck: You know, I, I, I’m kind of of two minds about this because of in the Petaluma world, like, I really do think it will take a challenger brand. I think it’s taken that for pretty much every other CPG space to rethink itself or to do something different. I think a lot of the incumbents just haven’t had the same economic motivations to change course, but if tomorrow morning the biggest CPG companies woke up and decided they were going to remove factory farm protein from their diets, which, you know, I don’t think we’ll ever see that happen, but if they decided that’s what they’re going to do, I would applaud it and be thrilled and be psyched that they were participating in a solution. I think a lot of these big brands have focused and set on investing in those upstarts and kind of seeing how things shake out. But I think, you know, pet food is unique in that it is like a scale business. So I think it will take some of these bigger companies. I’m hoping to see the writing on the wall and make some bigger changes, but I do think that the energy will come from some of these smaller brands who are challenging conventional wisdom a little bit or challenging these brands to do a bit better.

Keith Anderson: So you’ve highlighted marketing, which obviously is your role, and the company is positioned as being radically sustainable. What does that mean?

Caroline Buck: It’s a great question. So I think, and maybe this is a bit of a bias or a perspective developed from working in tech for so long, but there’s kind of a notion of trust, but verify in the tech world of like, you know, I’ll believe what you say, but you have to show me some evidence that you’re actually doing these things.

I think pet food is like a intentionally kind of obfuscated world where you’re getting a processed product where you can’t really tell what’s in it and you’re not eating it, your dog is. So there’s like a level of distance between the customer and the product. So for us, that’s meant being super, super transparent in terms of like what you’re getting in this product.

So most companies will give you like, you get a nutrition label on the narrow side of the bag that will list out the ingredients. We know that being, being an alternative product or being kind of a newer brand, we need to go a bit further than that, so we post the full nutritional analysis from every batch that we make, we partner with other third parties to verify, like, the claims we’re making from a sustainability perspective, so we became a certified B Corp pretty early on in our journey as a company, we’re a public benefit corp, we offset through climate neutral, so we’re trying to do these things that if you Google us and Google some of our impact numbers, there’s someone else who has checked this out, someone else who is holding us accountable to these, either environmental, social, or otherwise standards that we’re trying to set for ourselves.

I think it’s a lot easier to set some of those goals and put some of those guardrails in place when you’re younger and smaller. It’s, I’m sure it will be a bigger challenge for us as we get larger to stay true to those values, but it’s very core to why we are in the business in the first place.

So I don’t, I don’t doubt that that will deviate, but I think that’s kind of our approach is to trust the verified mission of you want to know what’s in this. We’ll turn over a relief. We’ll give you every study we’ve run on this food. You can see for yourself versus, and also like a bit, a bit of a different direction too, but we don’t really make any claims about our food, which is not because we don’t think it’s a great food, but you’ll see a lot of companies will say things like shinier coat or, you know, healthier dogs, but there’s no, there’s no data, there’s no asterisks at the end of that claim, it’s just kind of out there in the ether, so, you know, that probably hurts us short term, in a marketing copy sense, but I think that’s part of the, kind of the brand we’re trying to build is one that you can trust, because if we say something, it’ll have a citation it will have some specificity to it or the circumstances around it, which I think is helpful for people if you are shopping for a product that is going against the grain a little bit. So you feel comfortable, you know, if you were to forward this webpage to your veterinarian, they can read it. It’ll be in a language that they understand and they can double check it for you.

Keith Anderson: Well, and I remember, when I first encountered it, I was initially intrigued by the positioning and went to go see, okay, what makes it radically sustainable. And as you mentioned, it’s a plant based formulation, which is relatively rare. But then, you know, it’s also clear that you’ve thought deeply about packaging and the production facilities and sort of the end to end value chain, and I would tend to agree, it can be challenging as you go from, you know, small to big to sustain some of those commitments, but on some level, part of the reason I asked earlier about, is it going to take a challenger brand is I’ve observed similar trajectories, as you mentioned yourself, where it often takes somebody starting from scratch without any incumbency or a legacy of dominant market share and shelf space.

And I mean, inertia is a powerful force. And so if you’re trying to do the right thing in a new and different context, starting over is often the fastest path there. And so I think it’s, I often look to emerging brands like yours to see, okay. If you think of this as a sort of canvas for what would you do if you were starting a pet food company today, or over the last couple of years, you know, what would be the same and what might be different?

Caroline Buck: I totally agree with you. And I think one of the challenges that any legacy or traditional pet food brand would have is that the traditional protein used in dog food is so cheap, it’s just so absurdly cheap, so it’s very challenging, I think, to make a case, beyond, like, it’s very hard to make a business case, I would imagine, internally to say, let’s turn away from this almost free protein source that we are able to get as a part of the human food supply chain and move over to this very expensive organic chickpea protein.

Like why would anyone do that? Unless you have, unless you have another reason to focus on it or if you can build a case for other reasons, or I think it would just be really really hard. I think that the gulf between those two things, just from a price point perspective is I think probably too much for most people to swallow unless you’re willing to to fight that fight, or unless you’re really willing to make a big, a big swing. I think it would be a bridge too far probably for many of those companies.

Keith Anderson: For the immediate future I totally agree. Do you foresee over a 5 to 10 times scale things like agricultural incentives changing in ways that maybe level the playing field or if not level it, make it a little easier to choose protein sources that, have, you know, a different resource footprint, but are closer to cost parity?

Caroline Buck: You know, there’s,

there’s interesting things changing all the time within like the different markets for different ingredient suppliers. And I don’t want to be pessimistic about it. I think we would have to see some pretty like widespread change in like what America grows. For price parity to get, become more of a reality, so much of, like, so much farmland is dedicated to growing corn and soy to feed to animals.

There’s just like, there’s some pretty giant uphill battles. I do think that demand for some of these proteins just amongst humans, or like, for example, like barley and chickpeas and peanut butter and some of these other ingredients are very expensive to use today in pet food. I think as people become more aware of the health benefits of those individual ingredients, or as there’s more demand for, organic versions of these conventional ingredients, I’m hopeful we’ll start to see the price difference chip away.

I don’t think we’ll ever get to a point where a product like Petaluma’s will be at price parity with, like, an IM’s dog food. I don’t think we’ll ever have, we’ll never, we’ll always be, like, on opposite sides of the aisle, for a long time, but I do think that there will be we won’t be at quite the extremes we’re at today.

If I maintain a little optimism for farming in the U.S and maybe some, some different government or otherwise incentives for people to grow different foods and have additional markets for those foods.

Keith Anderson: Yeah. Yeah, fair enough. And I believe I read on your site. The agricultural piece is part of the mission. Tell us a little bit more about why that’s such a priority and how your approach is different.

Caroline Buck: Yeah. You know, it’s very ambitious and probably a little lofty for a brand of our size, but it’s something I think we’re both motivated in terms of selecting organic ingredients. I think there’s a lot of. You know, genuine concern about using conventionally grown crops from like a pesticide application perspective or other things that might end up in the food.

Which I don’t think that those are necessarily bad reasons. I think the reason we’ve mostly tried to use as much organic as possible or more sustainable crops as possible is partially because the same reason like you might be rinsing your strawberries because they have pesticides on them, like someone is spraying that in gigantic quantities in a field and, there’s some very real health consequences for the application of pesticides in the U.

S. by farm workers. So I think partially it’s just to kind of like build in some of that social awareness This isn’t just about, you know, dogs and the animals we take care of, like, the human aspect of farming, and the application of, like, wide scale pesticides for most crops in the US, has some real consequences for the health of those communities.

So it’s something which we consider in the food. I think there’s other good reasons to buy organic, too, beyond just that, but I think understanding the reality of how, how food gets to our table and who grows it is something we’re just trying to be aware of. You know, if we’re choosing between two ingredients, and the price is not that different, we’re going to go for the organic.

Keith Anderson: I’m thinking a bit about the competitive context that you’ve framed for us. You know, a handful of companies have fairly dominant share of total category sales. Given your positioning and, what makes you different, how, how do you think about go to market and where to play?

Caroline Buck: Yeah. It’s a great question and one that’s evolving all the time. I think what’s interesting about pet food is it kind of trails the human food world from a trend perspective. It lags quite a bit. It lags like, I would say, sometimes up to a decade. And we’re still kind of in like, call it the like, paleo, keto era in dog food.

There’s a lot of marketing about like, low carb, no carb, raw feeding, a lot of like, marketing tropes of wolves. Like catching prey on the bag. Like there’s a lot of that still kind of in the air in the pet food world. And I think, for any of us who had friends who tried keto, like they’re probably still not doing keto.

That was like a 2014, 13 phenomena that they’ve given up on. So in a strange way, pet food follows human food and pet food owners can be a bit fickle. If they think that something is healthier for their dog, or they find out that their dog is really into something, you know, they are willing to try new things, which I think is interesting.

Perhaps because if you’re, you know, if you’re thinking about the health conscious pet owner, it’s a lot harder if you’re trying to change, say, your children’s diet, they have to, you know, they’re going to give you a lot of feedback about it. It might be hard to stick to because of convenience or taste preferences or otherwise, if a dog likes something and they’re doing well on it, people are unlikely to change that.

Like if their dog likes it, they can make a big swing from a dietary perspective, without needing to make a sacrifice themselves. It’s something that I talk about a lot with customers of ours too, like it’s really hard for some people to give up animal protein. It’s not that hard for your dog to do it.

If you’re thinking about like the overall household, your dog is eating like a similar amount of calories to a person. So I think the marketing of it has to kind of like meet people where they are. I think because we are still in this kind of, maybe trailing off paleo era for dogs. We’ve, we’ve probably been in it for, for a while now, but because we’re kind of there, I think that’s a lot of the messages that people have currently, that that’s the right way to feed their dog.

I do think though, that as the trend, the trend, which I hesitate to even call it that, of eating more sustainably, eating more plants, eating more whole foods, eating less processed foods, I think as that becomes, a bigger and bigger part of the American consciousness, that will trickle into dog food. It has trickled into dog food. I think it has a bit more staying power as a, both a diet and, trend. So

I think where I currently am as a marketer of this is I’m, I’m conscious of those, conscious of the fact that most people have been fed like a half century of marketing that their dog is basically a wolf with a collar on, and they have been, have certain expectations about what they should, should and should not eat. And we kind of need to have some empathy that that’s what they’re going to be working with. That’s what they’re going to be used to. But I hope that as kind of the scientific basis for this, these types of diets continues to build, as people kind of drop some of these kind of like, outdated, kind of like Eagle Scout imagery about pet food, we can be a little bit more aggressive in the marketing and we can be a little more specific in it, but I think for now, we’re kind of keeping this, like, you can trust us because we’ll show you our homework, style of marketing.

Keith Anderson: Sure. Well, my sense is, I mean, you’ve got veterinary support for the, you know, nutrient profile and, health implications of feeding a plant based diet to the dog. And you’ve got the life cycle analysis and some of the other, evidence for the lower resource intensity and lower footprint. So, I mean, earlier you said you don’t make claims.

I would say you don’t make the same kind of claims that you typically see at the shelf, but I think there are some some positioning claims that help differentiate.

Caroline Buck: Yeah, absolutely. I think, I think in the world of, it’s kind of, it’s kind of similar to human health and like, you could almost find a doctor who will say anything. But you won’t find very many cardiologists who will say anything. Like, there are a few rogue cardiologists roving around the internet or espousing some wacky diets. But for the most part, they are not advocating for all diets. They are advocating for a more specific diet or for, if you’re conscious of heart health, for example. I think that’s what we’re trying to achieve by working with veterinary nutritionists, like, they have specialized degrees in nutrition beyond, like, the clinical vet who may have had, like, one semester of coursework in nutrition, and veterinarians have to learn about every single type of animal, and if they are learning about nutrition, it’s often in the context of, like, large scale feeding lots and not the same as your dog, so I try to make that distinction with people, too, like, you could find me I don’t mean this to sound overly dismissive to veterinarians, but you can find a veterinarian who would endorse, like, any number of products, but I think it’s really important if you’re, if you’re in the market for dog food to see, like, the letters after their name, or to find, someone who’s built their career in the nutrition space specifically, because they’re going to be looking to hit some very specific parameters, and it’s a, it’s a bit of a different standard than your clinical vet, but something that your clinical vet would obviously understand and appreciate if you were to bring it to them.

Keith Anderson: Yeah, that makes sense. And am I correct? I know that you began direct to consumer. And

Caroline Buck: Yes.

Keith Anderson: it looks like you’ve got some brick and mortar distribution. You know, what, what has it been like starting a direct to consumer and growing that way, where do you think you’ll end up in three years?

Caroline Buck: That’s a great question. I mean, I think it was mostly our own bias, between my co founder and myself having worked mostly in digital companies and felt like the way to go. We didn’t have experience in brick and mortar. It’s kind of its own beast. It’s very expensive for a lot of brands. It’s really expensive for pet food where there’s lower margins than conventional products.

So for us, it just felt especially launching this product during COVID, this is a predictable product that people want on a certain schedule. It’s annoying to buy, it’s heavy, it’s bulky, it’s not something you can, like, tuck under your arm easily and walk home from the store with. So for a lot of people, they just want to buy it that way, so that was, that was where we started.

We do have limited distribution in some natural grocery stores. There’s one in L. A. called Erewhon. We’re in their stores. Just knowing that, you know, where we have our pockets of customer bases, that those are places for people to discover us. But for now, we’re mostly thinking of retail as a discovery point versus, a main channel to buy.

We see people who buy things in those, select stores, and then they end up subscribing online just out of the sheer convenience. I think it’s a just a natural, convenient subscription products, but I, I don’t think we’d rule out retail. I think retail is always changing and there’s different opportunities for brands.

So I, I won’t count it out, but I think for now it, it just seems to just make a ton of sense for what our customer is asking for beyond like the use case of someone’s on a road trip and they wish we were at Petco. It’s usually more convenient for people to just get it on the schedule to their doorstep.

Keith Anderson: Totally. I mean, when you were talking earlier about the feedback loops and how they’re different between kids and dogs, 10 or 15 years ago, we were analyzing, in my consulting days, why different categories were migrating online at different speeds and to your point, two of the big drivers of pet, which was actually further on the adoption curve than many CPG categories, the weight of, you know, the 40 or 50 pound bags was a big one, so people felt like they were hacking the system if they could have somebody else bring that heavy bag to their doorstep instead of loading it into the trunk and doing it all themselves.

And secondly, the subscription point. I mean the subscribe and save model, you know, has really proliferated since those days, but pet was one of the categories where it just makes a ton of sense. And one of the things I find so interesting about it, in contrast to the increasing same day, next day, used to be two day delivery, predictable, low speed shipping is a lot lower emission and can be lower cost also in terms of, you know, freight and logistics.

So I think there’s also upside in a category like that, like this, where you can, you can lock people in because they’re not going to want to switch and substitute, unless they encounter something.

Caroline Buck: Right. Yeah. Totally agree. We’ve. We’ve dabbled in a few different career models too that we’ve had some success with, where because of the weight and the price point, it’s a decent fit for these kind of micro fulfillment centers, where you’re not actually putting in a cardboard box, you’re just delivering it to the doorstep.

We’ve found some success with those, but I think to your point, like, if you have, if you have a subscriber who’s on like a, you know, seven week cadence, we don’t need to ship it the day before it needs to get there. We have a pretty good window to get that back to them and there’s not, you know, there’s not a need to have this like expedited shipping model, which can be a challenge.

I think we’ve, we’ve been, it’s a perpetual operational question and something we’re always tweaking to try to improve the ship speed by having warehouses in different locations and kind of moving around as our customers distribute themselves. But it’s just a challenge, Amazon and Chewy have really trained people to get that next day arrival when they buy something, especially in the pet category.

So I think that’s something that’s a reality of the space that we have to kind of grapple with that maybe unlike some other categories, people just really expect pet food to come fast.

Keith Anderson: I mean, I think in many categories they do, unless they’re on subscription, in which case, to your point, then it’s set it and forget it. How do you think about Amazon and Chewy in terms of distribution?

Caroline Buck: So we, we have our treats on Amazon. We have not put our food on Amazon. We are not on Chewy. You know, I think it’s interesting to kind of our earlier conversation around retail. Most of the, like, there’s kind of a really specific ladder that most people expect you to go through for pet. They expect you to sell to like boutiques, then to regional pet, then maybe to like larger regional pet, and then to like a Petco, and then to a Chewy.

And so a lot of the people further down that chain won’t even speak with you, if you’re on Chewy, or they will be really finicky about it, or expect you to pull off of Chewy if you’re selling in their stores, because I think they’ve really been hurt by the rise of Chewy, and are really conscious of, you know, maybe some window shopping that happens in their store, people are ultimately buying online.

So I think from a like a strategy perspective, we’ve avoided those places. I think they’re also, it’s really hard for most small brands to have a healthy margin on those platforms. They take a fair amount from you as a brand. But I think, like, I think beyond maybe some environmental, like, headaches that I have with Amazon and Chewy, I think, like, in general, as a marketer, you want to be wherever people are shopping.

So I’m sure it will make sense for us at some stage to just be available on some of these channels. I’ve been frustrated with Amazon, like, personally for a long time with their, like, kind of I’ll say like flimsy climate efforts. At least as a shopper, they’ve created some spaces within the platform that give you a lot of like back padding for having right sized packaging, but don’t do anything about the products themselves.

So there’s, I think for a lot of people, they have like a lot of, hand wringing about launching on Amazon. But I think at the end of the day, it’s a great experience. People are searching for your keywords. It’s a high volume browser that people want to be in, but we’re probably, we’re, we’re very much like tiptoeing our way in versus diving straight into something like an Amazon and Chewy is probably pretty far down the line for us.

Keith Anderson: Yeah, yeah, I think, especially from a search and discovery point of view, to your point, I think it makes sense to have at least a brand present in some capacity, particularly given what differentiates this type of product or this type of brand and the affinity shopper that, that is trying to find you and that you’re trying to find, uh,

Caroline Buck: Right.

Keith Anderson: It’s interesting Amazon, in their most recent sustainability report, they disclosed they’re going to start collecting more, data from suppliers and pressuring suppliers more and, I just think it’s going to be a fascinating 6 or 12 months ahead as they start involving their supply chain a bit more in, in, what they’re doing, because to your point, I mean, so much of the footprint is up and down the value chain and they in many ways, have done more than other retailers, but I think, in many ways, It hasn’t been fast or enough.

And I think starting to engage, hey, here’s how we want to align and coordinate with some of our partners is going to be an interesting thing to see how it evolves.

Caroline Buck: Yeah, yeah, I think to your point, like, as a search engine, it’s very challenging to ignore, but I think, one of the easiest ways they could help from a, like, customer choice nudge perspective would just be to have, like, to pair that search engine with some better filters. I think it’s just been, it’s been hard for smaller brands to feel like they can be, brand safe is too strong of a word, but feel like they can articulate their value proposition up against kind of the world of other brands, like just the volume of brands is so remarkable on Amazon that I think for a lot of smaller companies, it’s very hard to distinguish what makes you set different, distinct, and having Amazon could easily become like an authority on that if they chose to invest in it.

So I, I’m watching them eagerly to see if they can make good on some of those promises.

Keith Anderson: Hey folks, this is the part of the show where we say thank you and see you soon to the general audience, plus and higher tier members of decarbonize.co. Stay tuned for the rest of the episode.

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