News & Views

What We Buy When We Buy Things For Our Dogs

by Chris Barth

(Warning: This post is full of adorable pictures of Apollo, Contagious NYC's newest resident office dog. Proceed with caution.)


Let me tell you about the ads that have been following me around the web for the past month. Gone are the ads reminding me to buy the pair of shoes that I already bought two months ago. Gone are the geographically targeted Facebook ads for dentistry and higher degrees. Gone are banners for shows on cable television that I will never watch. Instead, the past month has been one of the most enjoyable I've spent on the web. Why? From promoted Tweets to the pre-roll ads on YouTube to the sidebar ads on every site, my browser has been full of puppies.

No, I haven't installed some magical plug-in that replaces ads with animals. Last month I adopted a dog, Apollo, the latest fuzzball to grace Contagious NYC's office. And, just like Target knows when you're pregnant, the data monsters that live in our browsers knew it. It couldn't have been hard for them to figure out; daily visits to PetFinder were instantaneously replaced by orders and searches for 'How to teach your dog to sleep in'.

Just as an expecting mother makes an incredible number of brand decisions in her nine months of pregnancy, new pet owners make a slew of choices in the span of days or weeks that will often continue throughout a pet's life. This quote, from Target statistician Andrew Pole in the New York Times, about targeting pregnant women, could ring nearly as true as a soundbite about a recent dogfather: 'We knew that if we could identify them in their second trimester, there’s a good chance we could capture them for years. As soon as we get them buying diapers from us, they’re going to start buying everything else too. If you’re rushing through the store, looking for bottles, and you pass orange juice, you’ll grab a carton. Oh, and there’s that new DVD I want. Soon, you’ll be buying cereal and paper towels from us, and keep coming back.'

This isn't a small slice of a small pie. Americans alone spent an estimated $58.5 billion on their pets last year – an all-time high. These are big brand decisions that potentially echo for dozens of dog years.

So what do we buy when we buy things for our dogs? Do you buy the monkey toy or the pirate toy? (I opted for the monkey pirate, the best of both worlds). Do you get a pink frilly coat for your female dog, or do you buck gender norms and go with blue? What colour leash? Which dog walker? Which type of bed?

Your dog doesn't care about any of these decisions, really. With a few exceptions, we're not buying what our pets want, we're buying what we want. And marketers now have a concentrated data event in which they can gather information about what we're searching for, and target us accordingly. Concerned about a shiny coat? Here's an ad for fish oils. Looking to teach your dog some tricks? Here's a sponsored post about clicker training.

When we buy things for our pets, we're buying what our human friends recommended. We're buying what gets the best ratings and reviews online from other dog owners. We're buying products from brands that give us peace of mind. That seem comfortable to our sensibilities. We're buying products that, if we were the dog, we would want to be playing with, sleeping in and chowing down on. We're buying services that understand our needs and follow through with impressive customer support. In other words, we're buying the trends that Contagious has been following for decades.

Brands are starting to realize the opportunity to lock in pet owners as lifetime buyers. Last year, the aforementioned Target created a mobile game, in partnership with Purina, with the goal of promoting Purina's Beggin' Party Poppers snacks – and promoting Target as the place to buy those snacks. Pedigree created a radio station explicitly meant to entertain dogs when their owners were out of the house, as part of the brand's overall strategy to be, in the words of Nick Garrett, CEO at Colenso BBDO, who developed the campaign, 'as much about encouraging dog ownership as selling dog food'. (I/O subscribers can read our full Q&A with Nick here). Like almost every other category, pet brands have stopped strictly marketing their products, and started selling services and experiences.

Take, for example, PetFinder, which helps prospective dog owners search for animals in shelters across the US and is owned by Nestle Purina. The world's second largest pet food brand bought the site in 2013, leaving it to mostly run on its own, although you will notice that the articles about raising your new furry friend aren't afraid to promote Purina content. (Purina, coincidentally, was the first brand to engage with Apollo on social media).

More recently, Contagious covered a Pedigree campaign from the UK, in which the brand developed a wearable fitness tracker for dogs, allowing pooch owners to count calories, measure exercise levels, monitor diet, and generally do all of the things humans have recently become taken with in the quantified fitness world. These are products for human beings, marketed as products for dogs.

A final piece of evidence comes from perhaps the most interesting thing we buy for our pets: food. In some ways, buying dog food is a pure branding experience. There are myriad options, at various price points, with very little distinction. Wet food, dry food, food that comes in rolls resembling cookie dough packages. Grain free, extra protein, 'wild diet' with a wolf on the package. Not to mention the millions of flavours, from fish to turducken. These options, diverse as they may be, will all feed your dog about the same way. After all, it's a dog.

In a story titled 'The Chemistry of Kibble' in Popular Science, Mary Roach talks with Pat Moeller, then president of flavor-making company AFB International, and writes: 'Pet foods come in a variety of flavors because that's what humans like, and we assume our pets like what we like. We're wrong.' "For cats especially," Moeller says, "change is often more difficult than monotony." '

We can pretend we're choosing things for our pets, picking the brands they prefer. Really, though, we're just navigating another obstacle course set by brands, jumping through hoops made of data and running toward the purchaser profiles they've mocked up based on our habits. Now you'll have to excuse me, I'm off to buy some peanut butter and bacon flavored treats, because that's what Apollo prefers.