Companies like to talk a lot about data nowadays—real-time data, operational data and, of course, big data. But when’s the last time you heard anyone gush about puppy and kitty data? Well, if Mars’ latest venture goes according to plan, we could be poised to enter the age of … pet data.
The $35 billion packaged-foods and pet-products colossus today announced a project it’s calling Kinship, a “coalition dedicated to creating the future of pet care,” according to the company. Kinship will be a platform for innovators—principally startups—in the pet-services field to collaborate with one another by sharing insights, research, diagnostics and figures, all with an eye toward improving the future of pet nutrition and care.
“We will become a platform and connection point for anyone with an idea about this industry who wants to share it,” Kinship president Leonid Sudakov told Adweek. “It’s a very broad-reaching initiative.”
But why would any private company trying to find its footing in the $72 billion pet-care industry want to share anything with a potential competitor, including Mars? One reason is financial support. Mars invested in nearly 20 pet-related startups last year, and its Companion Fund administers $100 million for the growth of “entrepreneurs addressing the needs of pets, pet owners and pet professionals,” according to the company.
Another reason is Mars’ own vast pool of knowledge and expertise culled from its eight decades in the pet field. While most consumers associate the Mars name with human treats like Snickers and M&Ms, the company is actually more heavily invested in pets than chocolate bars. Mars entered the pet-care field in 1935 when it bought U.K. brand Chappie dog food. Today, its pet-care division operates 50 companies globally, from food brands like Pedigree and Iams to full-service veterinary care providers like VCA and Banfield pet hospitals.
Mars is, in fact, the largest provider of veterinary care in the world. Its vast holdings have imbued the company with expertise in everything from nutritional science to supply-chain fundamentals. And since Mars-employed vets treat somewhere around 400 million pets yearly (about 40 percent of the global total), the company sits on a mountain of health information—all the more useful in an industry that has yet to be fully digitized. Companies that join up with the Kinship platform, then, can expect to avail themselves of this accumulated knowledge.
Which brings us back to data.
Kinship grew out of a 2018 initiative called the Pet Insight Project, a three-year study of over 200,000 dogs. The project employed data science and machine learning to establish causal links between pet behavior and pet health. For example, Mars was able to put two data sets together—behavioral data from its Whistle brand of GPS-enabled dog collars, and medical histories from its Banfield chain of animal hospitals—to create a body of predictive analytics that can forecast likely health outcomes. Kinship expands that sort of collaboration to include companies outside of Mars’ corporate umbrella with an eye toward creating a broader pool of useful data, Sudakov said.
Kinship is just the latest in a variety of pet-oriented initiatives Mars has been busy building over the past several years. These include everything from a student debt-relief program that alleviates the financial burden of veterinary school to an Imax 3D film project called Superpower Dogs, which will spotlight “dogs with extraordinary abilities who save lives and make the world a better place.”
In a broader sense, Mars is also hoping that by strengthening its commitment to pet wellness, it will create the proverbial tide that lifts all boats: If Kinship succeeds in improving heath outcomes for pets, in other words, one effect will be supporting and promoting pet ownership overall, an aftereffect that will lead to more business for Mars. As things stands, close to 70 percent of American households already have pets, and the money owners have spent on those pets has more than doubled since 2001.
“The consumer will get the benefits [from Kinship] because we’ll be able to get new products and services to them faster,” Sudakov said. “And as a result, we’ll make pet ownership more attractive, [and] we’ll bring the industry forward.”