Even a dog's breakfast can offer a leg-up on marketing strategy

MARKETING and pets make big business.

MARKETING and pets make big business. Every time Louise, our bleeding-heart conscience for this column, hears us mention pets, she gets all teary and reaches for her picture of Audrey the schnoodle.

Our love of our pets reminds me of a meeting I attended in the late '70s at an advertising agency that had just won the account for Uncle Ben's - a huge company owned by the Mars family, of Mars bar fame, that included Pal, Whiskas, Lassie and others.

The two Mars brothers were larger than life characters who almost single-handedly established the pet food industry worldwide.

At this famous meeting, John Mars sat us down at a boardroom table with three cans of Pal and half a dozen dinner plates. Mars immediately instructed the agency account executive called Hamish to provide half a dozen forks.

Account executives are known for always doing what the client tells them to do, so following the lead of the client, we ripped the top off the cans of Pal and hopped into a boardroom lunch designed to prove that Pal was good enough to be eaten by anybody - including your pet. It was a graphic lesson to us all about how important our pets were set to become.

Today, more than 50 per cent of people live in a household with either a cat or a dog. More have a dog than a cat and RSPCA New South Wales data shows that 66 per cent of us regard dogs as our favourite pet.

The marketing and social opportunities are enormous. Nearly 40 years on from that fateful lunch with Pal, the latest Morgan data shows us that there is an explosion in pet ownership among midlife families (people between 40 and 54 years), with nearly two-thirds of them owning a dog or a cat. Often they are empty nesters - people living alone in the inner suburbs and quite often in high-rise apartments.

The world has changed dramatically for the humble pooch. He or she often starts the daily walk in a high-speed lift from a 15th-floor penthouse and then is groomed with a booming array of products. I recently heard of a paw balm that is applied after a run in the park or a session of doga - yoga for dogs.

Fascinating research done in the mid-'90s showed that dog and cat owners make fewer visits to doctors and are less likely to be on medication for heart problems or sleeping difficulties than non-owners. It's a pity that the research is not up to date because it showed that pet ownership saved us nearly $1 billion a year in health costs two decades ago!

And the media are onto it of course, with Dr Harry on Seven's Better Homes & Gardens and the ludicrously handsome Dr Chris Brown on Ten in Bondi Vet. And then there's Send in the Dogs, Nine's show about police dogs in Australia. On pay TV, there's a US documentary coming up about military dogs in Afghanistan, starring one of the US army's working dogs that was part of the team that killed Osama bin Laden.

So John Mars was on a good thing way back in the 1970s. Estimates of the family's wealth put them among the richest in the world and I know that if people were to look down from his namesake planet on humans walking in the park, they would be perplexed about life on Earth as they saw Homo sapiens in tracksuits walking around early in the morning with plastic bags picking up doggy poo as the canine strutted out ahead. They would surely wonder who is running the planet: the pooch or the person? Well, for mine, it's the pooch, because if you're an advertising person like me, you have got to be wondering what else you can sell to two-thirds of the country who will do anything for their pet.

You see, there is an underlying marketing lesson here - the consumer does not always have to be the buyer - even though in the case of Pal, John Mars thought it would help.

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