Pet Aging and Changing Household Rituals



Several years ago, I faced an interesting problem that I now know was the genesis of my current research approach of studying cultural systems. A client was launching a revolutionary new food for older dogs, proven to improve their mobility dramatically. Their lead agency had undertaken the typical research to uncover decision drivers, gauge emotional resonance and focus messaging. The work was considered best of class.

Despite all the research, potential messages that were based on the insights weren’t testing well. Asked to audit the research, I quickly discovered the data wasn’t the problem. Rather, it was that the data was not in context, analyzed under the consideration of how a pet’s aging influenced the pet/human relationship in day-to-day life. So I focused on that aspect, reveling in stories of family life and learning what a day in the life of an aging pet was really like. 

There were two defining moments in this approach that led to a different perspective. The first occurred as we were on a “day in the life” walkabout with a Dallas mom. As we approached a set of stairs, she started to climb but suddenly stopped, turned and with tears in her eyes, said “this is one the hardest things every day. Every time I need to go upstairs, I have to either carry him or leave him down here. He just can’t make it up and down anymore.” 

The second occurred as we were in a different home, visiting the bedrooms the dog visited every night. “Duke” used to start the evening in the parent's room, but would hop down around midnight to move to the youngest son's bed, and then move once again early morning to the oldest son’s room. She smiled as she described how it used to irritate her so much because it would wake her. But now, she explained with a sense of sadness, Duke only slept with the older son. 

We were standing in the oldest boy’s room as she explained. It was a typical teenage boy’s room - a mess. But there was one object in the room that stood out. Against the bed was a bright blue, very child-like Thomas The Train toy box. When I asked about it, she smiled and explained that’s why Duke slept with only him now. He could climb the toy box and get onto the bed. 

These two moments led to an amazing epiphany. The previous research had correctly concluded that a pet’s aging made pet owners feel sad, an expected response to an inquiry about how they felt. But this experience revealed a nuance that put that finding in context. While pet parents did express sadness about their pets aging and passing away, my conversation revealed it was expected, seen as a part of a cycle of life. The real emotional driver, something they didn’t quite know how to explain, was the unrelenting disruption of cherished household daily rituals. And this deeper, hard-to-explain feeling was about loss, more akin to mourning than sadness. 

This perspective was incorporated into the campaign’s language, imagery and messaging, and it played a critical role in enhancing the resonance of the launch campaign. It reinforces my ongoing mantra that data is good but only in context. We don’t always know what to ask, and people don’t often know what or how to tell us, but studying cultural systems in this way can reveal the powerful but invisible social and cultural dynamics that shape how we think, feel and behave. That’s what should inspire our campaigns.