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Pet food makers’ advertising dogfight escalates

Chow Chow breeds are displayed during the American Kennel Club's Meet the Breeds event in New York.

EDUARDO MUNOZ/REUTERS

Persuasion Notebook offers quick hits on the business of persuasion from The Globe and Mail's marketing and advertising reporter, Susan Krashinsky. Read more on The Globe's marketing page and follow Susan on Twitter @Susinsky.

A legal battle over truth in advertising has escalated, as two companies spar over their marketing to quality-sensitive pet owners.

It started last week with a lawsuit filed in a St. Louis federal court by Purina. The Nestlé SA-owned brand sued competing pet food maker Blue Buffalo under a U.S. law mandating truthful advertising. Purina's case put forward what it says are independent laboratory tests that demonstrate Blue Buffalo's food contains ingredients such as chicken byproduct meal. Blue Buffalo's advertising has positioned the brand as more natural and higher quality than bigger pet food makers' products.

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This week, Blue Buffalo said it planned to sue Purina for defamation, saying in an open letter that the claims in the lawsuit are "outrageous" and a "malicious attempt to undermine the trust of our pet parents." On Wednesday, Blue Buffalo fulfilled that promise, announcing it has filed its lawsuit.

In an open letter, founder and chairman Bill Bishop said the company has "never purchased one kernel of corn or one ounce of poultry byproduct meal … two ingredients that Nestle Purina claims to have found in our food."

In a statement, Purina said it stands by its claims.

Pet food makers have been working hard in their marketing to insist their products are not a dog's breakfast – making claims about quality, natural source ingredients and complex nutrition.

That's important because pet owners have become increasingly receptive to more "premium" products for their animals. The $3-billion pet food and pet product market in Canada has grown as those consumers have been willing to spend more on higher-quality products. Brands are chasing those premium claims more aggressively – and in this case, are taking each other to court over attacks on those quality claims from competitors.

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