Birth rates across Asia-Pacific may be dropping, but it is not that couples do not want to be parents. They just don’t want regular children.
This is evident in how they have turned their doting tendencies to something no less adorable (and dependent) than babies — pets.
Gina Westbrook, director of strategy briefings at Euromonitor International calls this “pet humanisation”. While the majority of pet owners treat their furballs as family members, about 5 per cent think of pets as “substitute children”, says Westbrook.
Thanks to this 5 per cent, businesses of designer pet clothing, pet spas and pet insurance are laughing their way to the bank. However, the pinnacle of pet humanisation may be the boom of technology to dispel boredom and count calorie-intakes of the pampered pooches.
Bistro, a Taiwanese cat feeder, uses a cat-facial-recognition technology to track kitty’s food intake and health. CleverPet, a US-made puzzle toy, entertains dogs with its interactive games designed for noses or paws. Owners can even track their pet’s learning progress with the CleverPet app, which sounds akin to getting little Buster’s report card at school.
As pet gadgets get swankier, conventional pet-care products are also innovating to match pets’ elevated status. Bryan Boo, operations director of Pet Lovers Centre, a retail and service chain in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, observes that customers these days seek products that are not only safe and tailored to their furry friends’ specific breeds, but friendly to the environment as well.
The industry abides. Mars Petcare, the petfood giant behind brands like Pedigree and Whiskas, promises that all its products are backed by researche by the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition.
“We are also looking at the sustainability of our products for the future. For example, Mars Petcare has committed to using only sustainably sourced fish by 2020,” says John in de Braekt, president of Mars Petcare Asia-Pacific.
People care deeply about their pet’s wellbeing, be it diet, stress levels, or brain development — the very same aspects that parents fuss about in children. And like parents, pet owners do not mind spending to get the best.
As a result sales of pet care in the Asia-Pacific region totalled almost US$3 billion in 2014, reports Euromonitor International, and this is not including South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
Richard Cope, senior trends consultant of Mintel, says that even players outside of the sector are vying for a share of the lucrative pie. “The toy and technology industries realise that they have to create products for pets and pet owners,” he says. “This is a good industry to be in now.”
Fujitsu and Motorola have both unveiled smart collars that monitor canine health. Japanese toy company Takara launched a dog-to-human translator, while the company behind Bistro used to provide software to a Taiwanese startup that sells car dashboards.
The numbers suggest this trend is set to continue. Cope points to data from the Japan Pet Food Association showing that Japan’s 22 million dogs and cats outnumber children aged 15 and under by about 30 per cent. China, meanwhile, has around 40 million pets, a figure that’s rising by 20 per cent each year, according to Pet Business World.
EXPERT OPINION Pets: the new children
Richard Cope, senior trends consultant, Mintel
It’s official: pets are a new demographic — one to be considered seriously alongside other target groups like Millennials and nuclear families by marketers.
In the developed world, over the next 15-20 years, the nuclear family will continue to decline proportionally, replaced by a more polarised picture of single and multigenerational households. We’ll also see a growth in single parents and childless couples, and as falling birth rates curtail the youth demographic, it could be that pet ownership is the new parenthood.
Liberated from children, or living alone, these new pet owners want to treat their pets as family. They also have the disposable income to invest in premium products — from food to toys to fitness trackers.
Premiumisation in pet purchasing encompasses everything from paying an upgrade so your pet can stay in your hotel room (as Ibis offers in Argentina) to treating your dog to a ‘Panetteria di Canni’ panettone cake in Brazil. One surprising area of the premium pet market is toys and technology.
We’ve seen wearable fitness trackers from FitBark and Motion, and a skills-training game console from CleverPet.
The next stage will be to embrace concepts that help us understand what our pets cannot tell us. Examples here include Bistro’s smart cat feeder that alerts you to changes in water or food intake which may be early signs of illness, to (my personal favourite) pet food brand Pedigree’s scented, dog-eye-level billboards in Austria that encourage dogs on walkies to drag their owners over to the brand.