Blue Buffalo MashmellowsBlue Buffalo has been one of the greatest disrupting forces in the pet industry post-recession. Against a meaningfully competitive backdrop in pet food, Blue grew a $1.25 billion revenue brand that became the industry’s most meaningful driver of purchase traffic and transactions both in store and online. The company’s meteoric rise defied all known industry convention, and the brand gained a stranglehold over its retail partners, most of whom were used to dictating the terms of engagement. Blue even broke the cardinal rule in pet specialty, launching into FDM.  All of this culminated in the sale of the company to General Mills for $8.3 billion dollars. As I have said previously, Blue played the game, and played it well.

For some, this is where the story will end, as a real-life fairy-tail. However, for most there is another chapter, and when one digs deeper, the conclusion is that this may not all come up aces, creating repercussions for many that follow. While few can dispute that Blue Buffalo adroitly navigated a complex equation over the past ten years, growth and perception have masked some stark realities.

Consider first, while FDM sales are Blue Buffalo’s current and future narrative, it still derives the disproportionate amount of its sales in major pet specialty, and major pet specialty is flagging when it comes to pet food.  Pet superstore market share, according to Euromonitor, declined from ~ 25% of sales in 2015 to ~ 21% in 2017.  This represents a three percent annual decay function.  At the same time, Blue Buffalo’s sales in pet superstores declined from 68% in 1Q2016 to 45% in 4Q2017, dropping in every sequential quarter.  However, Blue Buffalo’s sales in pet superstores declined almost 9% from 2016 – 2017, accelerating in 2H2017 vs. 1H2017.  All of this is pre- retailer repercussions of channel jumping.

The logical response to the above is to cite growth in online sales of both pet food and Blue Buffalo’s solution set. During the 2015 – 2017 period, online sales of pet food grew from ~ 4% – 5% share to ~ 13% – 14% share, and Blue Buffalo became the number one selling brand of pet food online. However, several factors need to be considered going forward.  First, online pet food sales are generally at a lower margin, due to both price transparency and price based competition.  All sales are therefore not created equal, though volume based discounts to major retail partners offsets some of this compression.  Second, the online channel is getting increasingly competitive through the introduction of housebrands (Tylee and American Journey at Chewy.com and Wag at Amazon.com).  Given online is where volume is growing, it is natural to expect Blue Buffalo would experience some market share erosion from brands competing more aggressively in the channel.  Finally, one has to consider the long-term impacts of direct-to-consumer pet food brands.  While small in terms of overall sales, Ollie ($17 million), The Farmer’s Dog ($10.1 million), NomNomNow ($13 million), and its peers have raised considerable amounts of capital to disrupt the category, likely taking with them consumers who purchased through third party ecommerce platforms.

Next, consider that most channel jumping corollaries have been accompanied by share erosion over time and sales velocity deceleration once initial pipeline fills are complete. When Hill’s began emphasizing the online channel in 2016, it experienced sharp declines in growth tied to two factors. First, was the natural latency in ramping up awareness and velocity in an adjacent channel. Second, was due to reprisals from major pet specialty retailers, who reduced shelf space and SKUs and/or relocated the product with respect to its orientation in the store, moving it to less desirable real estate. Additionally, when Iams jumped to FDM post acquisition, it initially began to grow market share (up ~ 2%) over a five-year period, a time where category competition was less pitched and online sales were virtually non-existent, before engaging in a steady decline (down ~ 6%) over the next 10 years.

Finally, we need to consider Blue Buffalo’s track record of innovation. While Blue Buffalo has certainly been innovative in its core product line as well as its marketing strategies to build brand awareness and consumer loyalty, its innovation has been muted in recent years.  I was reminded of this by a close industry friend. Brands (Earth Essentials), form factors (meat rolls), and ancillary products (cat litter) have all been launched and either under performed or been discontinued. Veterinary sales efforts have been virtually non-existent.  Finally, brand awareness outside the U.S. is low and would take meaningful dollars to ignite. There is a general pattern of large CPG companies buying innovative brands and losing that innovation DNA in the process.

The net of all of this should be cause for concern – your core distribution channel is under significant pressure, your growth channel is getting increasingly competitive, your mitigating actions can only sustain you for so long, and it does not appear likely you can innovate yourself out of the dilemma.  While this may seem dire, there is hope, but it is masked by uncertainty.  The ability of General Mills to retain management and ramp up innovation, as they did post acquisition of Annie’s, will be critical. How they navigate the landscape with the sales force is also important.

While only time Blue Buffalo’s flame appears to be burning a little less bright.

/bryan

Note: This blog is for informational purposes only. The opinions expressed reflect my view as of the publishing date, which are subject to change. While this post utilizes data sources I consider reliable, I cannot guarantee the accuracy of any third party cited. herein.

Advertisements