Dog food brands power ahead as pet ownership soars

Tim Hansell of Skinner's outside Stradbroke Mill with newly rebranded Field & Trial packaging

CEO Tim Hansell with the newly rebranded Skinners dog food. The firm is celebrating 50 years with a packaging redesign and are introducing new treats and wet food products - Credit: Sonya Duncan

When two mighty East Anglian dog food brands combined last year there was much excitement.

And with the UK’s great love of dogs rekindled and strengthened by pandemic lockdowns and a new home working culture, there is now huge scope for Skinner’s of Suffolk and Naturediet of Norfolk to become even bigger.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Skinner’s — which is still based at Stradbroke Mill. The working dog food specialist was founded by entrepreneur Roger Skinner, who last year snapped up Naturediet — another family-owned dog food enterprise based at Ickburgh, near Thetford.

Combined, the businesses have a turnover of about £25m and 90 employees across the two sites. Over the last few months they’ve enjoyed double-digit growth as the combined might of the two brands begins to pay dividends. 

The Naturediet factory in Mundford following their merger with Skinners

A look round the Naturediet factory in Mundford following their merger with Skinners with managing director Daniel Masters - Credit: Sonya Duncan

Dan Masters, the nephew of Naturediet founders Carol and Robin Orrow — who set up the business in 1976 — has continued with the business after the sale of the majority stakeholding in October. He has been with the business for about 17 years working alongside his aunt and uncle. He is its managing director and retains his third shareholding in the business while Tim Hansell is chief executive across the two brands.

Skinner's dog food owner Roger Skinner, third from left, with wife Wendy and their children Ben and

Skinner's dog food owner Roger Skinner, third from left, with wife Wendy and their children Ben and Georgie at Stradbroke mill - Credit: Skinner's

Each brand has its own strengths — and customer base. Skinner’s is a dry dog food British heritage brand which is very well known in the game dog and working dog community.

This year has seen a major brand refresh for it using artwork by Angela Harding — an artist from Rutland — on the packaging design. There is a strong focus on sustainability with recyclable packaging for the company’s latest range of Wet Food and Treats as it expands its Field & Trial brand with new products.

The rebrand has been a “major undertaking”, said marketing director Hiedi Hutchinson. “She (Angela Harding) has a massive passion and a love for the great outdoors and it was a fabulous fit,” she said. “It was really key we took those customers with us on the journey and retained the heritage.”

The pandemic has seen many people reassess their lives — and that has included opening up the possibility of dog ownership. Before the pandemic the UK dog population was around 9m.

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Since the crisis, it is thought to have risen by as much as a tenth or more as more people take the view that dog ownership might work in their lives. 

Skinner's 2021 branding refresh for its Field & Trial packaging

Skinner's new packaging includes eye-catching visual imagery created by artist Angela Harding - Credit: Sonya Duncan

Naturediet factory in Mundford after its merger with Skinner's

Naturediet products coming off the production line at the factory in Mundford - Credit: Sonya Duncan

“It was not just about rebranding for Field & Trial but also so it can work for future products,” explained Tim. “The dog population has increased significantly through lockdown.”

The pandemic had also shown how much dogs contribute to mental wellbeing, said Hiedi. 

The company is currently working on a new range which is set to was to appeal to a new community of people who share a passion for the outdoors with their pets, explained Tim. Due to launch later this year, the new range is aimed at inspiring people to get outdoors with their dogs, he said.

So far, the brand refresh and range expansion has been well received among the brand’s loyal customer base. “It’s been fantastic. We have had a really, really positive reaction across our existing customers,” he said.

Meanwhile the business has had to contend with both Covid and Brexit. Luckily, unlike a number of other dog food brands, both Skinner’s and Naturediet make their own dog food on site — apart from the baked treats which are made at a plant in Hampshire. This has worked in the business’s favour in a post-Brexit world — as well as putting it in charge of its own destiny. “The bureaucracy of bringing food in and out of the country now is so much more complicated than it was,” said Tim.

At the same time, the business expected sustainability and the environment to “fly right up the agenda”, he said. So the aim has been to cut plastic waste and move to more sustainable packaging.

Naturediet — a wet food brand — uses Tetra Pak packaging rather than plastic pouches or heavy tins — one of only three dog food manufacturers in Europe to have invested in the technology. It made the multi-million pound investment about two and a half years ago enabling it to “cook” the ingredients and seal the packages in a seamless process. Tetra Pak has invested in its own recycling facility in Halifax and the design of the packaging itself uses space very efficiently compared to other alternatives — meaning lower carbon output. 

Field & Trial is sold through a range of independents, and Naturediet’s more mainstream-appeal products can be found on shelves in Pets At Home which has around 450 stores across the UK. There is pride in sourcing ingredients locally where possible. These can come from maize, oat, barley and wheat fields very close by and the vegetables and meat the products contain are also British.

The two brands will remain distinct — but as a business the aim is to make the most of the strengths of both sites.

“We are really working as one business with two manufacturing sites,” explained Tim. “We meet on a monthly basis as a senior team across both businesses.”

From Naturediet’s point of view the transition has gone very well, said Dan. “They have been the perfect partner on several different fronts — we both brought unique things to the business I think.”

He added: “We have got a bigger market and we are offering a broader range of products into a growing market.”