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.
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.