Foreign Entrepreneurs: Dinner is served – for your dog

November 22nd, 2010By Category: Work Tips

Research firm Fuji Keizai Co recently conducted a survey on the pet industry in Japan and found that high-priced pet food, pet cosmetics and stylish clothing form one sector of the economy that grew comfortably last year. The value of the pet market was estimated at about 1.2 trillion yen in 2009. Pet food makes up one third of the market, with diet food and health conscious “premium food” selling well, according to Fuji Keizai.

But not all pet lovers in Japan are paying close enough attention to what they are feeding their pets, says Steve Collins, managing director of K9 Natural Japan KK, an all natural premium New Zealand dog and soon to be cat food maker. Based on the diet of the North American Gray Wolf which DNA has proven to be 99.8% related to the domesticated dog, K9 Natural is 100% freeze dried raw dog food. The company’s slogan is “Feed your dog’s inner wolf with nature’s complete recipe.”

Born in Seattle, Collins came to Japan 20 years ago to teach English. After three years, he moved to the financial sector where he was until 2008. He and his wife launched K9 Natural’s Japan office in May. We went together with Japan Today editor Chris Betros to meet Collins and hear more.

Was it a big change for you, going from the financial sector to the pet food business?

Not difficult, but certainly different. My parents owned a pet-sitting business in the U.S., so I have grown up around dogs and cats. It sounded like a fun challenge that could also do some good by improving the welfare of pets in Japan.

What is K9 Natural’s history?

K9 Natural was set up in New Zealand in 2006. The founder, Geoff Bowers, is from the UK where he was a police dog trainer and responsible for all their K9 units; hence the name K9 Natural.

Have K9 products been available in Japan?

K9 Natural dog food was originally introduced in 2008 in Japan. With the success overseas, New Zealand wanted to have a more dedicated presence in the market, so in April, the opportunity was offered to me through a good friend and a partnership with a combined experience of over 60 years in Japan was formed. After registering with the agriculture ministry, we got some storage space, got started on our website and imported our first batch of food at the beginning of August.

Where are you selling your products?

We started with people whom we know have dogs, then we got into a pet grooming store in Omotesando. We’re now in National Azabu and we are talking with other high-end retail outlets. Our website was launched around mid-September and you can order online. We will be adding English to our website too. The customers we attract are primarily well-informed pet owners who understand the benefits of a raw diet.

Tell us about your product.

I think it is quite unique in Japan. It is freeze dried raw dog food, thus retaining the natural nutrients unlike cooked foods. What that means is that it has all the health benefits of raw food, but the convenience of dry food. You just add water to reconstitute it, which releases all the flavors and revives the key enzymes. It comes in three varieties—lamb, beef and venison. Everything is sourced in New Zealand. All the animals are free range, no growth hormones, no additives, preservatives or supplements of any kind. It is all natural.

Once people start feeding their dogs K9 Natural food, they stick with it. A lot of pet foods claim to be natural, but they aren’t. They have been formulated based on what people think dogs should be eating. Most big pet food companies fill their products with grain, wheat and rice—things that dogs are not meant to eat. Have you ever seen a dog grazing in a field? They are meat eaters. Our food is formulated on what nature came up with over thousands of years, which is that dogs should eat meat. Ours is 85% meat; the rest is fruit, vegetables, garlic and raw egg to provide vitamin and mineral balance from natural sources. It is a species-appropriate diet.

It must be a challenge getting people to think about what they feed their dogs and then change it.

Education is a big part of our selling process here. There is a lot of information on our website about promoting the welfare of dogs through a raw diet. For example, people still feed their pets the scraps off their dinner plate. That it is not generally good for them. They think they are being nice giving them cakes on their birthdays and loads of baked treats, but in reality, dogs are being fed junk food on a daily basis. It’s the same logic as the film “Super Size Me,” but the dogs don’t have a choice. If you want to give dogs leftover meat, it’s better if it is not cooked because then the nutrients and healthy enzymes are still in there. The number of dog illnesses has gone up rapidly in the last 20 years. Dogs can get allergies, skin rashes, even diabetes because they just aren’t meant to digest the food they are being fed. Their system is not meant to process it.

Have you had to tailor your marketing for Japan?

The concept of our dog food is that all domestic dogs’ DNA is a 99.8% match with the North American gray wolf. Our company slogan is “Feed your dogs’ inner wolf,” but in Japan, it is a bit difficult to get people to think of their Chihuahuas as little wolves. We’re playing down the wolf image here.

How do you market yourselves then?

Referrals and word of mouth are a key part of our strategy. Right now, we are doing online marketing and select email campaigns. We are also focusing on premium retailers in the Tokyo area. We’ll target high-end, dog-friendly areas like Denenchofu, Yoyogi-Uehara and Setagaya. Our strategy is to build up the brand name in Tokyo and then expand throughout Japan. In every store that carries our food, we do a training session with them. In the U.S., K9 Natural refused to put its products in certain stores that felt they didn’t need this training. We educate the staff to understand the product so they can explain it properly to consumers.

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Photo Credit: Jesslee Cuizon / Flickr

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