Retail as Religion

Loyalty is the focal point of many, if not most, brands. Understandably, getting repeat customers who will also serve as advocates is a smart move in a world where, due to the ease of online transactions, volume simply isn’t enough. But is loyalty enough or should we strive for something more? Should we strive for developing a shopping experience or brand that is largely impervious to economic conditions and the small mistakes and hiccups that all brands have to deal with during their lifetimes, no matter how good they may be at avoiding missteps? Of course. The question is how. The answer lies not just in how we execute the experience, but in how we conceive of the shopping experience. Shopping is a practice that has ritual structure and involves the creation of value and relationships. Loyalty stems from the development of these relationships but loyalty, though a strong influence on the power of a brand, has limitations and is subject to cultural shifts, a weak economy, etc. The goal is to move shoppers and consumers to the level of the truly devoted. In other words, we need to think of shopping in the context of sacred devotion.

Devotion is an ardent, often selfless dedication to a person or belief, but it can be extended to a brand and retail setting. Loyalty, in this sense, goes from feelings of strong but limited dedication to a state that borders on the divine. Like religious experience, it might even begin to manifest elements of cosmology. From my point of view, this is a far more powerful position for a brand to be in, but it requires more work. And to those who would question whether or not it’s worth the effort I would point to the growth of Apple stock in the last five years and the near fanatical nature of its devotees.

Devotion in the religious sense means paying homage and this carries over to brands and retail in that the devotee-shopper ritualizes the experience and treats the brand and retail space with a higher degree of engagement and devotion. In this case the nature of devotion is consumerism and the forging of identity through shopping. There is a public expression of respect to someone or something to whom or to which one feels indebted, as through an honor, tribute or reference. In the case of a brand, the devotee makes “pilgrimages” to its retail outlets and uses both logo and products as badges to signal inclusion for fellow believers, to recruit new believers and to keep non-believers away. After all, the goal is not in bring the half-hearted into the fold, but to draw in those who will embrace brand with the same degree of devotion and come to see the retail space as a manifestation of identity. When a consumer/shopper transitions from loyalty to devotion justifications of function and costs are set aside because they lose meaning to the devoted. All that really matters is the object of the devotion and the losing of one’s sense of self in the shared experience.

But it is not as if the devotee doesn’t get something in return. The devotee gets something back – a sense of fulfillment, a sense of greater meaning, a sense of belonging to a “special” group of people, a sense of ownership in the belief system. This leads to a sense of love that goes beyond romanticism and takes on an element of duty and personal involvement – and devotion. Rational interest becomes an expression of love which is not just an externally-focused love, but one that is co-authored. It is not the love of eros (passionate love, or the love of sensual desire) but the love of agape, or the notion that love is based on adulation, which being transcendent is not based on appraisal but rather the totalizing of otherness. It is not love subject to reason or explanation and is therefore unqualified. The aim of this sort of love is the loss of self through the merging with the beloved other. It is a creative act.

Devotional space leads to long-term repeat behavior on the part of the shopper. Even if they don’t make a purchase every time, they come to see the retail environment as a place of worship and the brand as a focal point in their own sense of identity. This leads to two centrally important points. First, when they do make a purchase cost is of minimal issue, though they may say otherwise. New product releases will garner immediate attention and devotees will wait an almost unimaginable amount of time to buy the product in the retail space. It is not enough to buy it online or at another venue – communion with the retail space is a rite. Second, devotees will bring others with them or advocate wherever they can, going from advocates to apostles.

So how does a brand achieve this level of devotion? There are several key points that lead to transforming the retail space to devotional space, all of which work together. It is an all-or-nothing proposition, but the payoff is worth the effort.

1. The Products

While it may seem obvious, retailers often forget about the power their products have on deep, social and cultural levels. The products must be of good quality, but they needn’t be the pinnacle of the industry. Retailers tend to spend a great deal of time talking about features and not enough time talking to shoppers and consumers about what the products do for them in terms of creating an image, a feeling, or a sense of well-being. It can be extremely difficult for us to remember that our products may be the best in the world, but if we do not articulate how they fit into the daily lives of our consumers they lose their relevance.

2. The Environment

The retail space is an extension of the brand, not simply a place to display merchandise. This means that in addition to the consideration put into the initial design of the space, a retailer must think about the space as a destination, a place of pilgrimage. Human perceptions of space, although derived from sensory tools that all humans share, are shaped and patterned by culture. Differing cultural frameworks for defining and organizing space are internalized by all people at an unconscious, usually shared level, and can lead to serious failures of communication. At the macro-level, these sensibilities shape cultural expectations about how every environment we interact with should be properly organized. This also means that settings can and do take on a “personality” depending on how they relate to cultural archetypes we posses about a given spatial frame. The surrounding stores and neighborhood need to be a reflection of or antithetical to your brand, the goal being to produce strong emotional responses. Products need to be displayed in such a way as to make them visually reverential (e.g. on a pedestal and under directed lighting). Touch needs to be elevated to tactile play and experimentation. Events must be incorporated into the retail space, allowing people to ritualize their visits and feel as if they are part of an ongoing, transformational experience. It isn’t enough to make the store look inviting and to reflect the brand standards of the company. The retail space needs to become a destination and take on a sense of “place.”

3. The Re-creation of Self

From an anthropological perspective, the individual is less of a coherent whole and more of a collection of various cultural identifiers. Culture, as a social practice, is not something that individuals possess. It is a process in which individuals participate. As such, culture is an important factor in shaping identity. In a retail setting this means that identity is developed as part of a shared system and that the retail space becomes a focal point around which people gather to find unity and shared understanding. As with religious communities, devotional space produces a heightened sense of belonging and a sense of being part of something “bigger” than the individual. Staff must appear to be part of the elect and use language and non-verbal communication to signal that the shopper has left the mundane world and has joined a special group, embodied in the retail setting. Architecturally, the gateway into the store must signal a transitional zone. Every element  of the entry process must let the shopper know that he or she is now part of something pure and experiential.

Increasingly, retailers are getting the point that loyalty stems from a more intricate retail experience. But it isn’t enough to cultivate simple loyalty. Understanding the retail experience as devotional space means thinking about the retail experience and the brand in general in a more holistic sense and thinking about how it can be used to cultivate a sense of shared identity among consumers. Again, shopping is a practice that has ritual structure and involves the creation of value and relationships. It is, or should be, a practice that goes beyond transaction to a sense of transcendence. Make your retail space a point of sacred devotion and you become inseparable from the lives of your consumers.


Doing Rapid Ethnography

The hallmark of ethnographic research is field work done in natural settings, where it can yield a broad picture and provide a more complete context of activity. But, ethnography can, at times, scare our clients.  Because of this depth, it is often seen as slow, expensive and inclined to produce more information than can easily be translated into action.  And to be fair, that assessment can be true.  However, an ethnographic approach need not always be so.

Due to budget constraints and time demands, a “ rapid” approach to ethnography can be both more practical and still yield findings and insights that can produce highly actionable results.  Is it always appropriate? No, but it is often better than no research and may actually be more beneficial depending on the goals of the research. In a rapid ethnography model, researchers can lessen time demands taking short focused studies to rapidly gain understanding of the brand, the product and the actions/meanings surrounding them. The trick is remembering design the processes around tighter focus, interactivity with participants and collaborative data analysis, not only with the researchers but members of the client team.

First, focus can be more difficult to achieve than we think.  A central tenet of good ethnography is that you don’t go into the field with your answers running – you’re goal is to learn about context and then determine how a product fits into the system.  So focusing too early can mean loading the front end of a project with too many preconceived notions. So focus in the sense we’re talking about here means having research teams identify the general area of interest and identifying specific questions that need to be answered by the fieldwork.  This means identifying the “why” behind the questions rather than simply recreating a context-based survey.

This means developing both a concise field guide (things to look for) and a field book (consistent, shared mode of documentation) before the fieldwork begins that are specific enough to target and isolate key behaviors and activities, but open enough to let the participant serve as the guide.  Constructing the field guide and field book in this way will help direct what research teams attend to during the data collection process and how they frame the field analysis. This is also a good place to consider using liminal members of a group and/or outliers. Because they are on the periphery of the subject in question, they often have ken insights on what others are doing and why they’re doing it.  Sometimes the best insights come from those least inclined to interact with a product or brand.

Another consideration in conducting a successful rapid ethnography is for researchers to use multiple techniques to increase the likelihood of discovering new concepts, interesting behavior, etc.  As an example, using art work or writing in the process can yield symbolic associations that wouldn’t necessarily come out immediately in the context of traditional ethnography.  Asking people to create and construct changes the nature of the inquiry and produces results that can then be compared against both the interview and the observations.  It is another way of quickly triangulating data. Other techniques might include resource flow documentation, defining activity valleys and peaks, or using cross-participant interviews (participants interview each other).

The third point to stress is using collaborative analytical methods.  Computer assisted analysis is always an option, but requires added expense and can be time consuming to learn  However, there are alternatives to ATLASti and other such tools.  Simply having a secure networking site where field notes, insights and observations can be shared between team members at the end of the day is extremely helpful.  Of course, the risk is that people might start jumping to conclusions too soon, but that can be mitigated through dialog. The point is that this allows researchers to collaboratively understand the ever-expanding field data and modify or refine the research in real time.  Another technique is to use metaphor and concept mapping in a shared system to help researchers align the underlying meanings of what they’re finding in the field rather than waiting until the end of the fieldwork to tease out insights. The creative side, insights-driven side of the research is essentially done in tandem with the fieldwork.

Is rapid ethnography always an ideal approach?  Certainly not. But it is a useful tool when budgets and time are limited.  And increasingly, it is simply part of the tool kit we have.

When Geniuses Miss the Mark on Shopping

Paco Underhill is the subject of a new interview and it is interesting.  Somewhat reductionist at times, but interesting nonetheless.  There is much to be learned from Paco’s work and much a company can use. But there are also theoretical and observational gaps that could lead a company down a dangerous strategic path.

While I will be the first to say I admire the hell out of Paco Undehill’s work, I also think that many predictive elements proposed by a purely psychological methodology miss the mark.  Not by a little, but by a mile. Case in point, the predictions made in the interview about grocery shopping.  The example given is of Whole Foods and suggests that people are above all else mission-oriented, that mission being reduced to the procurement of calories and healthy diet. As such, the prediction goes, people will forego shopping in the store in favor of using a mobile app to select foods and schedule pick ups – drive up, pay, drive away with your goods.  The problem is that it doesn’t really address the underlying needs and beliefs people have when shopping for food, particularly at a place like Whole Foods. Not all groceries are the same.

Whole Foods is a place of experimentation and play.  It is a place people gather at to see (quite literally) other like-minded people. It is a public socio-political statement. It is a place to linger, to teach values to our children and a destination.  People need to see, touch and smell produce because it confirms notions of freshness, health and quality.  Letting another select and box these items is not necessarily desirable because of ideas we hold about pollution, health and trust. Will the predictions made in the article hold true in an Aldi? Probably. Granted, this is one example from the article, but to suggest in such sweeping statements that all retail will take a turn toward function ignores the symbolic richness and structural elements behind the shopping experience.

The point to this is not to diminish another researcher’s work and my sincerest apologies to anyone who would construe it that way.  No, the point is that without looking at the deeper symbolic processes and motivations behind shopping behavior, consumption and the use of retail environments leads to assumptions that a grounded in partial truths.  That can lead poor strategies and loss of revenue.  The introduction of online and mobile shopping have unquestionably changed the landscape.  Understanding the complex interactions between sales channels, culture and psychology will produce much better insights and strategies.

The Shopper Continuum

To the credit of marketing, advertising, and research people the days of talking about the consumer as the sole focus of shopping activity are essentially gone. We recognize that the shopper and the consumer are not always the same. Indeed, it is often the case that they are not. The focus has shifted to the process that takes place between the first thought a consumer has about purchasing an item, all the way through the selection of that item. While this is a reasonable approach to understanding the people who buy and use a company’s products, it still has one principle flaw. Namely, it focuses on individuals rather than systems of people and the behavioral and cultural drivers behind their actions. The distinction is subtle but important because it assumes the shopping experiences goes well beyond the product itself, which is largely functional, and considers the product (and brand) as a means of facilitating social interaction. In other words, it thinks about shopping as a means of establishing cultural norms, emotional bonds, and identity.

Shopping as a Function
Think of the shopping experience as a continuum of cultural patterns with the shopper moving along the line as influences shape their intent and behavior depending on context, consumer, and people of varying influence falling at different points along the line. The baseline goal may be as simple as getting groceries in the home with the consumers all adding to the shopping list. On the surface, it is a reasonably simple process to understand. We need food to survive and we need to make sure the food we buy reflects the realities of personal tastes within a household. This is the functional side of the shopper experience. First, shopping is viewed as a collection of interdependent parts, with a tendency toward equilibrium. Second, there are functional requirements that must be met in a social unit for its survival (such as procurement of food). Third, phenomena are seen to exist because they serve a function (caloric intake). So shopping is seen in terms of the contribution that the individual shopper makes to the functioning of the whole or the consuming group. Of course, this is part of what we have to market to, but it is only one part of the shopping equation.

The problem is that this approach is unable to account for social change, or for structural contradictions and conflict. It is predicated on the idea that shopping is designed for or directed toward a final result. Shopping, it assumes, is rooted in an inherent purpose or final cause. Buying cookies is more than getting calories into your kids. In fact, it has precious little to do with the kids at all and it is at this point that the shopper begins to move to the other end of the shopping continuum.

Shopping as Part of Something Bigger
Human beings act toward the things they buy on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things. These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters. Shopping, then, can be viewed through the lens of how people create meaning during social interaction, how they present and construct the self (or “identity”), and how they define situations with others. So, back to cookies. The mom buying cookies is rewarding her children, but in doing so she is expressing to herself and the world that she is a good mom, that she is loving, and that she understands her role as a parent.

As another example, imagine a husband who buys all organic vegetables for his vegan wife. He is expressing solidarity, support, recognition of her world view, etc. He may, however, slip a steak into the basket as a personal reward for having been a good husband which he expressed through accommodating her dietary needs. The fundamental question is not whether or not he responds to advertising describing the products, but what are the social and cultural mechanisms under the surface that shape why he makes his choices. What the shopper buys and the consumer shares are individual, rational choices. They are gifts that create an obligation to reciprocate in some way. Through the gift, the givers yield up part of themselves and imbue the product with a certain power that helps maintain the relationship. The gift is therefore not merely a product but also has cultural and social properties. In other words, the shopper and the consumer are doing much more with products than fulfilling the need for which the product was designed. The product becomes a tool for maintaining relationships. What that means for a marketer is that when we design a shopping experience, we need to dig deeper than the product. We need to address the underlying social and cultural patterns in people’s lives.

All of this means that when we are develop a new means by which we target shoppers, we need to remember to speak to both ends of the continuum and remember that shopping is both a functional and a symbolic act. Shoppers and shopping break into two categories. On one end is the purely functional element and on the other is the structural/symbolic element. Shopping for nuts and bolts clearly falls on the functional end, but not necessarily the tools with which they are used. Understanding and talking to both ends of the continuum leads to a broader audience and that leads to increased sales and brand recognition. Which is, when all is said and done, the ultimate goal.

Politics and Culture: Growing Your Brand in India

Companies are scrambling to decode Indian consumers.  Granted, the same could be said for al the BRIC nations, but India in particular seems poised for transformational expansion over the coming decade. There is a young and energetic population, an abundance of resources and a growing population of highly-educated entrepreneurs with personal and professional experience abroad.  In 10 to 15 years, India’s economy could be as big as China’s is today. And while there are certainly infrastructure hurdles to overcome, India’s political and social system appears to be addressing them, painful as it seem at times.

So with stagnant markets in Europe and North America, and India’s rapidly growing middle class, it has become a target for expansion by retail brands in particular.  Plenty of companies are betting on India’s growth – Nestle has been in India for nearly a century and YUM! Brands have begun opening stores on the subcontinent. But it isn’t as easy as stocking the shelves with products familiar to Indian tastes.  So what are some of the principle issues to consider when preparing to expand in India?

Brand Preference, Price and Identity

Many companies look to their successes in China as a model of brand introductions, but what applies to China doesn’t necessarily apply to India. One major difference is that Indians have not had the same preference for foreign brands.  That may well change as Indians living abroad return home in search of more opportunities, but there is hardly a guarantee. As an example, when Coke bought up leading Indian cola brand, Thums Up, they intended to kill the brand off.  But local managers quickly pointed out, rightfully, that Indians preferred the Thums Up brand. Despite Coca-Cola’s desire for consistency everywhere, the company decided to keep the brand alive, giving ample shelf space to both products.

Was it a flavor issue?  In part, yes.  But it is also representative of the fact that Indian brands often continue to have greater brand share once foreign products are introduced because they are associated with identity, price and nationhood.  Foreign status brands exist (just as they do for every market), but local brands are often closely associated with notions of cultural-worth, growth and progress. The cultural clout of a foreign brand doesn’t necessarily translate in India. Indian brands mean Indian jobs and growing international status.


With over 1,500 dialects spoken in India, language can’t be overlooked, both in terms of product design and messaging.  Trying to find products or produce advertising and marketing collateral that appeal to everyone can be difficult at best.  Division over ethnicity, issues over perceived social and political power, and access (perceived and real) to the goods sold by foreign firms can be decidedly pronounced. Understanding the complexities of power and how language may factor into the discussion can be a deciding factor in how a brand is received.

Political Structure

There is nearly as much diversity in the political structures of individual states within India as there is language and ethnic diversity. Navigating specific regional laws and regulations is frequently something companies overlook – not so much from the logistics and procurement standpoints, but from the deeper socio-political position. Politics reflect worldview in a democracy as large as India and it is important to understand to motivations behind how individual states interact with multinationals. Add to that the fact that corruption has become largely endemic and you have a significant problem.

The point is simple. If you don’t understand cultural patterns at a more than superficial level you are doomed to failure.  If you learn to look for deep, meaningful patterns and cultural processes you will succeed.


Too Much Choice?

The other day I was asked by a colleague to name one fact about shopper behavior that most retailers are surprised to learn. Something that has emerged over the last 14 years of work, but particularly since the rise of the mobile device.  While there are a number of them, one that immediately came to mind was the obsession retailers have with choice.  Why? Because the addition of mobile adds to an already overwhelming experience and too much choice can actually work against you. People are much less interested in ridiculous numbers of product choices than they say. Our obsession with choice is a cultural construct – we’re trained to say it but the fact is that we don’t necessarily want it. At least not in every environment. Indeed, design (good design, at least) is about limiting choice and directing people to take certain actions.  You can’t make good choices if you are overwhelmed and confused. The natural response is to flee or fight.  So streamlining inventory or improving flow can completely alter how a retail space is used and understood.  As an example, the layout of IKEA seems like it would lead to cognitive overload, but it doesn’t because it designed like a Bazaar – IKEA directs shoppers through a series of visual vignettes, metaphorical “stalls,” similar to what we expect to see in an archetypal Bazaar. Consequently, shoppers are able to cope with the number of choices, to segment, categorize and compartmentalize them.  Most mass retailers simply bombard shoppers with products and signs screaming “Buy this!” The product display without a storyline attached coupled with the sheer number of options is bewildering. In-store signage that is simply loud doesn’t covert shoppers to buyers, it’s just loud.  It is the Fox News in retail design.

Shopping is increasingly an entertainment experience, a teaching experience and a means of expressing identity publicly.  As such, it is something of a three-dimensional media channel which integrates elements of digital, spatial and information design into a multi-sensory experience. So, what was once simply a matter of product overload now has the added distractions of an increasingly mobile world.  In other words, while there was always noise, the noise is significantly greater than it ever has been.  People have limits to what they can process, whether on the retail floor or elsewhere.  Simply throwing out more options in the hope it will spur purchases won’t work.  It will, in fact, work against you. Because experience is rooted increasingly in dialog between members of social groups (e.g. moms, bicyclists, rockabilly fans, etc.), the retail experience actually begins well before we set foot in the store, in conversations where people congregate. Choice is, of course, always an element but overload is a risk retailers can’t afford.

So what does it mean for the future of retail? I think we’re going to see a  return to unique goods and the stories wrapped around them. There will always be a place for the retailer with massive selection and 100,000 square feet of floor space, but they will have to put more thought into the experience. They will need to treat their stores as destinations.  For smaller venues, the nature of the brick and mortar experience will become akin to a stage, a place to entice, enthrall and engage. Products and spaces that have subtle differences and convey human ownership or production is going to replace sterile, institutional settings. People are looking to be part of the storyline. Brands and retail settings that humanize their offerings are going to become fixtures for people and for communities.

Insights, Experts and the Family Dog

Things are not always what they seem and insights stem from looking at the world in unexpected ways.  Numbers can tell you a great deal, but I am of the opinion that they don’t help you to see unexpected patterns.  Take how we think about treating our pets for things like ticks an fleas, and the experts we turn to for advice. As consumer pet ownership continues to increase and pet owners are continually striving to create better lives for themselves and their pets, the potential to serve these consumers appears to be endless.  However, with the pet ownership market ever changing, the space is flooded with products and services.  On the surface it seems simple and the numbers derived from lengthy surveys confirm the expected; that we turn to veterinarians.  But like most things, it’s more complex than that.

Tied to the question of how they conceptualize their pets is the question of how they understand and construct meanings around “experts”.  On the surface, both of these issues seem to have common sense answers.  But if asked to define what it is that makes a person’s hunting dogs different from the “family” beagle and the distinctions become exceeding difficult to articulate.  Ask them where they learned about the flea and tick treatments they use and they are just as likely to talk about their groomer as they are their vet.

What this means, then, for a product developer or a marketer is that a seemingly simple, straight-forward situation is in fact fairly hard to pin down.  It means rethinking who we define as “experts” and it means developing a more complete understanding of what roles pets and animals play in people’s lives. For the most part, marketing dollars are geared toward veterinarians and clinics, which, on the surface, makes sense. But for the end customer, the person with the pet, the process of learning begins earlier and often revolves as much around unofficial experts as it does the clinician.

The Dog Park

The dog park is communal space wherein people and pet congregate.  They share advice, tell stories, and discuss topics of interest to people engaged in what we will simply term “dog culture”.  Waste-bag dispensers are sporadic and disorganized, toys laying around for all dogs to play with, and communal water bowls are located at front gate and upper gathering area. Random leashes hanging on the fences near gates, it is unlikely they belong to anybody at the park.  “Regulars” gather at the picnic tables to talk and socialize, while  “Irregulars” hang around the peripheral fences with dogs and observe, waiting to be invited into the fold.

In communities defined by shared interested and shared materials, there is usually a strong sense of trust that extends into how the value of knowledge is perceived.  The opinions of the fellow pet owner often hold more weight than the opinions of the expert, be it a veterinarian or vet tech.  Becoming part of these social units means gaining their trust and advocacy.

The Animal Hospital

There is no doubt that the veterinarians and staff at clinics care about the animals they treat and the people who live with them. They often own multiple pets and sometimes finds themselves lying awake at night thinking about animals they’ve treated or operated on. But at the end of the day they are owners of small businesses.  Time and resources are limited, both for explaining products to pet owners and for dealing with pharmaceutical reps.  One veterinarian commented, “They don’t teach business in vet school. Perhaps there’s an opportunity to sponsor business education for vets.  Especially the ‘old school’ vets on current trends.”

Oddly enough, more affluent individuals spending less on their pets, while less affluent spend more. Veterinarians can’t  understand how people can spend $30-$40 on boarding and complain about a $25 rabies shot. Again, context may play a part.

The offices are usually filled with pharmaceutical collateral and images of animal anatomy.  Every inch of wall taken up with educational signage.  From the perspective of the visitor, everything signals cold science and big business.  The warmth and candor of a veterinarian or the staff is diminished.  Levels of trust are curtailed. Consequently, anyone and anything in a clinic is defined within severe social limits and couched in impersonal terms.

The Pet Supply Store

The pet supply store in and of itself presented nothing surprising. Signage is everywhere and employees move between stocking shelves, checking customers out, and answering questions.  Consumers question the expertise of staff because they are low-wage employees.  However, within every store there are several “animal fanatics” who are viewed as credible by the people they interact with.

Additionally, pet supply stores have “specialists”. Groomers, vet techs, etc. are pushed to the edges of the store, and have a different façade. This symbolically sets them up as being something more credible and professional.  It takes special training and expertise to work in these sections of the building and the people in these places are smart.  While a groomer might not be able to discuss heartworm prevention, his/her occupation does set them up as an expert in all things dealing with, say, the skin and by extension, flea and tick prevention.

The Shelter

Shelters are unique in terms of trust and credibility.  Anyone working at a shelter, particularly a no kill shelter, is given almost saintly status.  They are the pinnacle of trustworthiness and affection, devoting themselves to the welfare of animals regardless of reward.  Interestingly, people who adopt a pet will frequently make return visits to the shelter both to socialize and to get advice on treatment or training for their pets. Pictures and stories of pets are kept in special books that both the staff and visitors can look through, people can all tell extensive stories about their own pets (many of whom they adopted and nursed back to health), and visiting pets are remembered.  All of this potentially sets the stage for creating the perfect combination in establishing brand loyalty.

Granted, Adoption care packages come with each adopted pet, which may influence return behavior, but they also serve to reinforce a company’s brand on two levels.  First, there is simply the issue of familiarity – I used the product once so I’ll use it forever.  But on a deeper level, the products and brands in the adoption package become associated with the people working and volunteering at the shelter.  A veterinarian may suggest switching to product X, but if the people who take on an almost angelic aspect recommend product Y, the owner will take their recommendations over the veterinarian.

Added to the sense of selflessness is the fact that many staff members are seen as being “scientists”, particularly if, as many of them do, they hold degrees in biology, primatology, or another “animal science” field.  Expertise and commitment are conveyed through the stories told, both personal and about the animals. 

The Pet Hotel

Pet Hotel staff was incredibly knowledgeable and willing to discuss their views. As with the staff at shelters, the staff had stories and advice they were more than willing to hand out.  For example, the general manager of a pet hotel we visited owned hunting dogs, which was her reason for using Advantix for flea and tick prevention. If it’s strong enough to deal with what comes at a hunting dog, it can handle anything coming at a typical companion pet. The story was meant to convey real-world applications rather than what she considered to be vague recommendations from vets.

Two central insights came from these encounters.  First, life experience conveys expertise.  Second, unlike a veterinarian, this person has nothing to gain from pitching a product – profit motives are absent, only the pet’s well being is important.  Suggestions about medication are made on a fairly regular basis, but people in these positions  are always careful to state that it is personal experience, not formal training. So, while credibility is established, it always involves getting a second opinion from the vet, thus forcing a discussion of preferred brands and products.

Ideas, Insight and Implications

First and foremost is that expert learning begins well before a visit the vet and is driven by context and a sense of real-life experiences. The owner of a doggie daycare facility and the person with hunting dogs have types of experiences that go beyond what is addressed by the clinician. In terms of how this insight might manifest itself, a company could deploy reps in major metro area that would be responsible for spreading word about a product among shelters, resorts, retail and groomers.  These locations have the “real” referrers, not the vets.  This ambassador would have a very different function from sales reps and would engage unofficial experts and consumers in their normal environments to establish awareness.

Other opportunities might include sponsoring entire dog parks or shelters to demonstrate on an emotional and grass-roots level that the company cares about the same things pet owners do. The point is to become a point of reference for consumers when they make visits to clinics, pet hospitals, or any other venue where pet health products are sold and prescribed.

The second major insight is that the “type” of pet impacts where you go to get information about what to use. How a pet is functionally and symbolically conceptualized has a dramatic impact on purchase choices.  If, for example, a dog is conceptualized as being primarily for work/investment vs. companionship/part of the family, it impacts how and why people invest in that animal.  If a cat is an “indoor” vs. “outdoor” cat, it sets expectations about what are acceptable levels of disease and/or discomfort.  Ultimately these issues shape who the consumer asks for product advice, how and where they shop, what types of messaging and imagery they respond to, and how they define “expertise”.  It is in these points of implicit meaning that marketing opportunities lie.

The point in all of this is that insights involve digging deeper and rethinking the foundations of what we believe. It means becoming comfortable with stepping outside the obvious and connecting the dots in new ways.