You’ve probably noticed that we don’t sell Blue Buffalo at the Barkery. We only sell all natural pet foods, and Blue Buffalo has recently been sued by Purina for not living up to their “all natural” claims in television commercials.
At the executive offices of Blue Buffalo, in Wilton, Conn., Labradors and golden retrievers wander the halls, nosing around for lunch leftovers, and members of William Bishop’s 300-person workforce all call the 75-year-old founder and chairman Bill. A basketball and lacrosse player at Ohio-Wesleyan University in the late 1950s, Bishop, 6-foot-5, walks with a slight slouch but retains the loping gait of a college jock. His white hair thinning, he wears an open purple shirt over a black tee, blue jeans, a cloth belt decorated with skulls and crossbones, and running shoes the size of rowboats. He notes proudly that his sons, Billy and Chris, have senior executive jobs, making “the Buff,” as he calls the company, “a real family operation.”
Started in 2002 and propelled by advertising techniques the elder Bishop honed hawking Kool-Aid, Tang, and later SoBe, a beverage company he co-founded in the 1990s, Blue Buffalo last year tallied $1 billion in sales, making it America’s fastest-growing major purveyor of dog and cat food and the largest specializing in the all-natural kibble niche. He named his latest company in memory of Blue, a beloved family Airedale. The Buffalo part reflects his affection for cowboys, Indians, and Western kitsch. “Also it’s good to have a strong icon that people will remember,” he explains. “SoBe had the lizard. The Buff has the American buffalo.” Undercutting the Great Plains motif, orange-labeled bottles of Veuve Clicquot Champagne line shelves outside Bishop’s corner office. “You have to like to drink to work here,” he jokes. “We’ve had a lot to celebrate.”
The company’s rise can be measured not only by its near-ubiquitous retail presence but by pervasive advertising that Bishop boasts is deliberately “in-your-face,” and encourages “pet parents” to compare the Buff to the competition. Blue Buffalo’s television spots and Internet videos have become so familiar they’ve been parodied onSaturday Night Live. The mock commercial for “Blue River” dog food aired on NBC in April. Guest host Seth Rogen and SNL cast member Cecily Strong played the sort of overwrought consumers who philosophize about pet nutrition in Blue Buffalo’s actual ads. The characters suffer an emotional meltdown as they discuss what they’ve fed their bug-eyed pug mix, Peanut.
Purina is notably not amused. The St. Louis-based company, owned by the Swiss conglomerate Nestlé, has manufactured feed and animal chow for 120 years. It controls about a third of the $20 billion-a-year pet food market but lately has seen customers lured away by such premium brands as Hill’s, Merrick, and Blue Buffalo.
Competition is one thing, but executives at Purina headquarters say they can’t abide Bishop’s advertising, which they claim is misleading. Contrary to its carefully cultivated reputation for authenticity, Blue Buffalo “is built on lies,” alleges Steven Crimmins, Purina’s normally even-tempered chief marketing officer for U.S. pet food. Although Bishop stresses his company is family run, “they’re owned by a big Wall Street firm [and] outsource all their manufacturing,” Crimmins says, not trying to disguise his indignation. “Their key ingredient claims aren’t true, and they have a history of exaggerating what their products do.”
In May, Purina sued Blue Buffalo in federal court in St. Louis for false advertising, commercial disparagement, and unjust enrichment. Bishop’s lawyers fired back with equally heated counterclaims about an unlawful Purina “smear campaign” seeking “to stem the exodus of Nestlé Purina customers to Blue Buffalo.” In a taunting open letter posted on his company’s website, Bishop accused the larger company of relying on “voodoo science” when it cited in its court papers lab tests supposedly showing that Blue Buffalo used poultry byproduct meal—an ingredient Bishop’s company promises “never” to include.