The Pets as Kids Revolution.
What is the difference between a pet parent and a pet owner and what does it mean for your business and the future of the pet industry in Britain*
*This article first appeared in the March 2017 issue of Pet Product Marketing – aimed at a British audience**
The words ‘pet parent’ get thrown out a lot these days.
It’s no secret that the role of dogs and cats in many Western homes has been evolving from that of a household pet, to that of a child. Retail expert Phil Chang from Hubba.com confirms the trend, he says:
“studies have shown that when humans look at their pets, they feel the same emotional affinity as they do when they look at their children. In fact, 9 in 10 Americans say they consider their pet to be a part of their family. Furthermore, the average number of dogs per household worldwide is 1.6, while cats are 2.1. The average number of children per household worldwide is 2. While the number of children per household has remained stagnant, pet ownership has tripled in the United States since the 1970s.”
It seems many couples worldwide are literally choosing to have dogs and cats in their life and home instead of children, so the term ‘pet parent’ seems natural. Simultaneously, the term ‘pet owner’ and in fact the entire legal and moral idea that a pet is piece of property has been widely rejected by pet guardians who know their companions to be complex sentient beings and not ‘things’.
Meanwhile among experts, there has been backlash to the term ‘pet parent’. The controversy is largely due to the fact that having a ‘pet kid’ or being a ‘pet parent’ implies that pets are human. Many behaviourists worry that the continued anthropomorphization of our animals leads people to ‘play house’, where the dog or cat gets reduced to an accessory or doll and its natural instincts and need as a mammal and a predator are largely ignored. This blatant disregard for the instinctual needs of our animals at best leads to stress, at worst can have tragic and even fatal consequences.
Master trainer Allyn Leczner from theAnimalScientist.com expands,
“the term pet parent is misleading because it implies that one day our pets will grow to care for themselves and make their own choices, which will never be the case. It’s critical that we acknowledge the full spectrum of decisions we must make and the needs we are responsible for fulfilling for our pets.”
So Why Should We Care?
For those of us who operate pet businesses and target this broad, ambiguous market called ‘pet parents’, the real question is who are they? Furthermore, what motivates them? Additionally, based on your unique business model, brand, skills and capabilities, are they in fact your ideal customer? These questions becomes absolutely essential as we seek to get more clients, earn more revenue and flourish as a business.
Human Hierarchy of Needs
To answer these questions, let’s go back to 1943. Specifically, to an article published in Psychological Review by a humanistic psychologist named Abraham Maslow, titled “A Theory of Human Motivation”. It was in this article that Maslow introduced his “Hierarchy of Needs”, a framework to illustrate his theories regarding a human’s innate need to chase his or her ‘full potential’. Essentially, the hierarchy proposed that humans’ most urgent needs would be the first satisfied, slowly moving up the pyramid towards ‘self-actualization’, where they might reach their ‘greatest potential’.
The underlying idea was that as our basic needs are met, we have the capacity to care about and pursue higher and higher [less survival-related] needs. This theory has received criticism [largely for lack of empirical support and inherent cultural bias] but I think it’s an interesting framework to use to try to piece together these ‘pet parent’ questions.
I would like to propose a theory about the ‘pet parent’ identity as it relates to our business’ ability to profit and grow. The concept we will explore here is the idea that there is a hierarchy that exists in the roles pets occupy in our lives, and thusly, in the human role as a pet caretaker. Additionally, that this hierarchy can be broken down into three distinct levels, each presenting unique opportunities for pet businesses to serve, problem solve and profit from.
First we explore each level of the pyramid, and what you need to know about this person as a customer. Hopefully this will allow you to understand what level of the pyramid you are most suited to serve. Then, we will discuss what competitive advantages using this framework can offer you.
Pet Hierarchy of Roles
Despite what some of us may like to imply in our marketing communications, our customers are not actually animals, they are the human wallet-carriers. As previously discussed, pets cannot fulfil their own needs. Therefor, unlike Maslow’s pyramid which identifies human needs and the ascension of a human up the pyramid as they become more capable and interested in pursuing their greatest potential as a human being, we will identify pets’ needs, and the ascension of the human up the pyramid as they become more capable and interested in pursuing their greatest potential as a caretaker of pets.
For our purposes, we have borrowed Maslow’s categories [changing ‘self-actualization’ to ‘enrichment’] and combined them into three distinct levels:
- Pet Owner [Pets as Property]
- Pet Guardian [Pets as Sentient]
- Pet Parent [Pets as Kids]
1. Pet Owner: Pets as Property
This is the very base level of pet caretaking. Varying from pets as an acceptable food source or commodity, to pets that live without shelter year-round with only base-needs met, to working animals that are considered valuable only as long as their utility lasts. At level the pet is essentially a thing, not a who. In most cases the bare minimum of time and money are invested in the animals’ care.
Primary Retail Opportunity: Low Cost
Due to the minimal investment of resources in pets as property, it is likely that the best strategy to attract buyers at the pet owner level, is to offer low price and high convenience.
2. Pet Guardian: Pets as Sentient
Pet owners become pet guardians as the animals’ safety and emotional wellbeing become a greater concern. The fundamental difference between ‘Pets as Property’ and ‘Pets as Sentient’ is the human’s acknowledgment that the animal is not a thing but a sentient being with thoughts and feelings. For dogs and cats this often leads to the animal moving inside to share the home, which then leads to an increase in behaviour and cleanliness-related problems to solve. Additionally, as the human acknowledges that the animal has thoughts and feelings, a greater bond can form which leads to love & belonging and the beginning of a better understanding of the pets’ needs for grooming, nutrition, exercise and quality of life.
Primary Retail Opportunity: Solve Problems
Due to the integration of the pet into the human home, we propose that best strategy to attract buyers at the Pet Guardians level is to seek to solve their basic behaviour and co-habitation annoyances. There is an increase of time and financial resources available at this level, but due to the limited nature of those resources, great value and convenience will be very important factors to influence purchase.
Sample Problems Solving Products & Topics:
- Loose-leash walking
- Containment [crates, fences, doors]
- Odours & Stains
- Basic supplies & Accessories
- Basic training tools
- Diet: Basic nutrition, Allergies, Weight Loss, Illness
3. Pet Parent: Pets as Kids
The fundamental difference between a pet guardians and a pet parent is that the human’s acknowledgement of sentience becomes a more comprehensive concern with holistic health, wellbeing, enrichment, happiness and force-free training methods. Pet parents feel compelled to make the very best decisions they can for their companion. Consequently, pet parents invest a great deal of resources in learning about and acting upon their pets’ unique, instinctual, emotional and cognitive needs.
In consumer cultures like America, this powerful emotional need to act in the animal’s best interest often outweighs the practical considerations of cost and convenience, leading to pet parents representing both a very profitable and a very educated segment of the market. This commitment to deeply understanding and acting on their pets’ highest needs is the realization of a human’s highest potential as a caretaker of animals.
By these definitions, a pet caretaker cannot be considered a ‘pet parent’ without making this significant commitment to truly understanding their companion animal(s).
Primary Retail Opportunity: Optimize
The pet guardian becomes the Pet Parent as they begin to treat the needs of their pet like they would the needs of a family member. At this level the Pet Parent often shows love through the investments of time and money in their animals’ wellbeing so there are significant opportunities here to find and keep customers with incredibly high lifetime value. Along with the increased spending however comes high expectations, so the ability to increase conversions among these consumers is largely impacted by the quality of the offering and the ability of the staff/sales person to offer sound, specialist advice. This and it is likely that exceeding the customers’ expectations with service-oriented extras will be rewarded with loyalty.
**It is important to remember, however, that just alike all humans, pet parents still want and need ‘good value’ so don’t make the mistake of simply thinking high-priced ‘luxury’ offerings will unanimously appeal to buyers at this level.
- Force-free training tools & resources*
- * Additionally this passionate, educated consumer will expect a total absence of force or pain-causing training philosophies and tools: no pinch, no choke, no prong!
- Natural & Holistic Wellness
- Grain-free, Single-ingredient, home cooked diets
- RAW or BARF diets
- Dietary supplements
- Organic /Local products
- Enrichment Toys & Activities
- Premium Supplies + Accessories
- Design-led brands
- Gifts / items for pet parents
- Pet-themed or ‘designed with pet in mind’ home goods
- Advanced problem solvers [heavy chewers, joint pain, senior dogs, allergies]
Pets as Kids Revolution
When a majority of the pet owning population in a society begins to ascend from the ‘pet guardian’ level to the ‘pet parent’ level, we call this movement the ‘Pets as Kids Revolution’. Our theory is that revolution occurs due to animal advocacy, education, increase in wealth and other public and cultural pressures. If you’re familiar with the Law of Diffusion of Innovation, the ‘Pets as Kids Revolution’ starts to occur when the Early Majority begins to adopt the move from pet guardianship to pet parenthood. Due to the value of the pet parent as a customer, this movement represents significant opportunity for pet businesses and brands.
“When a majority of the pet owning population in a society begins to ascend from pet guardian to pet parent, that is the movement we call the ‘Pets as Kids Revolution’”.
Your Competitive Advantages
So with all this talk about psychology, theories, resources and roles – the question begs… why does it matter? Who cares? Well you should, and in addition to the opportunities we have already identified, here’s why. There are three primary competitive advantages available to you if you use this framework in your pet business:
- Know your Audience
- Predict the Future
- Conserve Energy, Pick your Battles
1. Know your Audience:
Perhaps most important advantage for the purposes of this article, is your ability to communicate effectively with your target market. The first step in achieving this is to choose which level of the pyramid you intend to target, based on how well you are suited to serve that level.
Keep in mind, the Pets Hierarchy of Roles pyramid is largely impacted by socioeconomic factors and no matter where you’re based, wealth levels can obviously range greatly from person to person, so it’s likely you’ll have a mix of all three levels frequenting your business, but the brand you build and the communications you create will determine who is attracted to you. Work to attract the level you’re most interested in and well-suited to serve.
The second step is to analyse the opportunities outlined above for the level you intend to serve, and from now on, tailor your blogs, emails, signage, promotions, social media posts and other marketing communications to speak directly and specifically to what you know about the realities of pet caretakers at that level.
Purchase Practicality Spectrum
The third step towards knowing and communicating effectively with your audience is understanding the balance of their practical and emotional needs. It is likely that each person within ANY of the levels will experience an ongoing rollercoaster of thoughts and feelings pulling them between extremely practical and extremely emotional decision-making.
If you imagine resource considerations like cost, time and convenience on the left [blue] and emotional needs such as the desire to show love or avoid guilt or embarrassment on the right [red], you can easily recognize the conflict your customers will feel as they navigate through their purchasing decisions.
The better you get at understanding and easing this internal conflict for your customers at each level, the easier it will be for you to create more and higher-value transactions.
3. Predict the Future
There are many obvious reasons why knowing the future is advantageous – none the least of which is knowing how and where your resources will be most effectively invested. There is a distinct succession embedded in the Pets Hierarchy of Roles pyramid. People, communities or cultures currently stuck in the “Pets as Property” level are likely to, at some point, through advocacy, education or change in cultural or socioeconomic conditions, move up to the “Pets as Sentient” level. Equally, our hypothesis is that they will not move down a level once they have moved up.
Equally, individual pet guardians easily jump up to become pet parents. It seems that as public pressure, education and wealth increases, larger populations of pet caretakers will be moved up to the next level of the pyramid.
Great Britain: A Nation of Pet Guardians
With a glorious history of pet ownership integral in the British identity, there is no doubt that Britain is a nation that predominantly cares about animal welfare and believes pets are sentient beings.
However, because of that same illustrious history, there are a lot of ‘old school’ beliefs and educational hurdles to overcome. Additionally, as much less consumer-driven nation than America, currently even caretakers at the ‘pet parent level’ may not be spending as much cash as their counterparts in the States. This is great news, because it represents future opportunity. I believe the Pets as Kids Revolution is currently underway in Great Britain.
A decided advantage of being a part of the pet industry in the UK is the ability to look to more mature market like the US to see where the trends are likely to go. Now, it certainly isn’t a guarantee that everything that works in America will work in Britain, but if you look at some of the recent trends emerging in the UK such as boutiques specializing in healthy nutrition, premium products + services, or doggy daycare, or pet photography or single-ingredient nutrition – you’ll see that these trends came to areas in the US with similar demographics 5, 8, 10 years ago. This modelling gives you the ability to see where these same areas in the US are at now, a decade later, which essentially gives you a peek at what may be ahead for British pet guardians, the future’s British pet parents.
3. Conserve your Energy, Pick your Battles
The last important piece of the puzzle, especially for you as human being faced with the emotional challenges your customers bring you – is education and advocacy. Any pet business that cares about animals finds itself in a constant state of helping, saving and educating. In the Pet Heirarchy of Roles pyramid, it is you, the advocate, that helps usher people, communities and ultimately entire countries and cultures up from one level to the next. That’s a lot of work, and it’s exhausting!
We must walk before we can run. The pyramid makes it clear how people move up the levels, and it is our job as informed animal advocates to have the patience and compassion to help people of all levels to move, one baby step at a time, to the next. We cannot expect them to move from the bottom to the top in one fell swoop.
It is essential that as we hold our customers’ hands as they climb the pyramid, and that we do so without judgement.
We can’t do it all at once – which can be frustrating when we are well educated and passionate about our beliefs, but social change is an incremental, person-by-person game. The pyramid along with the practicality spectrum are great tools to help you stay grounded in the journey your customer is on, so you can meet them where they are.
It’s important to note that it is not actually the titles of the levels of this pyramid that matter. Ultimately people will choose what they want to call themselves and in the eyes of the law, all pet parents are in fact pet owners anyway.
What is important, is the clear distinction between each level in the journey towards a human’s highest potential as an animal caretaker… the distinct steps in the ‘Pets as Kids revolution’.
This matters to us as pet businesses because it gives us a practical guide to help us communicate, serve and problem solve effectively, to prepare for the future and to advocate for social change – the fundamental activities that help our businesses and brands profit and grow.
Please note that the model discussed here is a hypothesis that I have presented as a theory based on industry observation, experience and available data. I have not collected first-hand empirical evidence but I would love to see research to support or refute the ideas presented here.