44% of Millennials See Their Pets as Starter Children, and That’s a Big Opportunity for Brands

The fur baby economy is real

Selfies with your pet are always a good idea.
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Millennials are putting off marriage and starting families later in life, but there’s one big milestone they’re right on track for: their first pet. To many adults ages 20-36, these furry creatures are much more than cute companions—they’re starter children.

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A recent study from business solutions agency Gale found that 44 percent of millennials see their pets as “practice” for the real deal, with 21 percent citing that as the main reason for welcoming an animal into their homes and another 23 percent saying it was at least part of the reason. And The Washington Post reported last year that three-fourths of Americans in their 30s own a dog and over half own a cat.

Marketers say they’ve noticed that the perception of pets has changed with this generation—and they can take that animals-as-kids perspective to the bank. Here’s what millennial pet parents told us they want from brands, including customization, convenience and quality:

Mollie McGill, 26, and Patrick Sullivan, 29, are proud parents of Cooper, 2. They celebrate Cooper’s every milestone, from birthdays to obedience class graduations.

“In all choices we make, we understand she is part of that equation,” they wrote in an email to Adweek. “We put her interests before our own, and we’ve never seen her as ‘just a dog’ or a temporary part of our lives.”

We think that because we treat Cooper like she is a child, we’re inherently prepared for one,” they said. “Most of the traits we’ve acquired over the last 18 months are those that parents develop as well. The research, the planning, the worrying, the borderline obsession with this living thing and the overwhelming amount of love you feel for them.”

After being disappointed with many of the dog food options available on the market, the couple ultimately chose a brand based on the quality of ingredients and delivery options. In fact, McGill liked the company so much that she left her job in advertising to become the lead designer for Ollie Pets.

The couple looks for brand voice, values and high-quality products before bringing them to Cooper.

A study from Wakefield Research recently noted that for millennials, it’s essential that products are BPA-free, made of organic or natural materials and hypoallergenic. In fact, 86 percent of millennials who responded feel that natural food is vital for their pet.

Brands that feel customizable, more tailored, and don’t require us to go to the store every week are super appealing to us,” Cooper’s parents wrote. “We like brands that feel modern and fresh, and especially ones that have some kind of a ‘feel good’ component to them, like a give-back to shelters.”

Jam Stewart, director of corporate communications at Mars Petcare, said millennials are passionate about their communities. This summer, the parent company of brands like Pedigree and Whiskas launched a program called Better Cities For Pets to show people what a pet-friendly city could look like.

“There’s a growing demand to take their pets out to public places with them, as they would their children,” Stewart noted. “Since more and more people are moving to cities, especially millennials, we’re working to ensure those cities are equipped with more pet-friendly amenities and policies.”

Meghan Foreman, 26, also looks for pet care products that can be delivered to her door. Chewy, which delivers food, treats, toys and other supplies, had a tagline that stood out to her: “Where pet lovers shop.”

“Pet brands need to connect with pet owners on a deeper level to differentiate,” said Foreman. “I was drawn in by specific messaging and quality of product and stayed because I felt a connection to the brand based on mutual love of my dog, and all dogs, really.”

Foreman also considers her dog to be her baby and thinks this experience has prepared her for the “real deal” down the line thanks to the specific routines, checkups and preferences she now takes into consideration.

“Obviously there will be bigger challenges as a parent to a human baby,” she said, “but for now, my fur baby keeps my hands full.”

Becky Morris, 26, says her dog is her “best friend, confidant and child” all in one package. Between Pepper’s anxieties and her “speech patterns,” Morris has learned how to anticipate her needs over the past four years.

“I’m also a millennial with high rent and student loans,” she said, “so price is a big factor to me.”

Morris recently had to put Pepper on prescription dog food, priced at $54 for a 17-pound bag, and is looking for a more convenient way to purchase it than visiting her vet’s office every two months. She also looks for cute products at Target or online from other social media accounts of dogs, aka “dogfluencers.”

According to the Wakefield study, millennials think differently about what an “essential” purchase is for their pets. Three out of four millennials who responded to that study said they are more likely to splurge on an item for their pets than on something for themselves.

“The Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition found earlier this year that many children report a stronger affinity for their pets than for their own siblings,” said Stewart. “These findings contribute to a growing body of research showing the positive impact that pets have on children’s social skills and emotional wellbeing.”

Not every millennial, however, intends on having human children.

Shelby, a 23-year-old administrative assistant, and her girlfriend are grateful for their cats, which they treat like their own kids, since they don’t plan on having children.

“Once every couple of hours, my girlfriend and I look at each other and one of us says, ‘I love our sons,’ referring to our three cats,” she wrote. “And once every couple of days, we look at each other and one of us says, ‘God, aren’t you glad they’re not real kids?'”

Shelby has chosen a high-quality cat food, Merrick, to make sure her “babies live a long, long time.” To her, a “good brand of food with no grains and lots of protein is a great way to make sure that happens.”

“They confuse us. They annoy us. We adore them,” she said.

Pet owners who live in cities, and whose buildings can accommodate them, opt for delivery service when possible. Those who consider their pets to be like their children are willing to put in the time and research to determine whether a brand is right for their pets, and many use social media to follow petfluencer accounts to stay on top of new trends. (Cooper, in this case, is a petfluencer herself.)

Their personal experiences will inform whether they tell their friends about a company, so a service-oriented attitude can make a brand stand out. Chewy, for instance, attracted positive press after sending gifts to customers who lost their pets.

“It’s no secret that millennials consume media differently than other generations, with a strong affinity for digital content,” said Melodie Bolin, director of marketing operations for Mars Petcare. “In the last year, we’ve executed digital integrations with editorial partners such as BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post and Little Things.”

From a marketing perspective, Bolin highlighted the importance of putting yourself in the customer’s shoes to provide them with opportunities based on their passions.

“To keep pace with these shifts, we’re investing more in digital marketing, working with our partners to reach consumers on the platforms where they’re present and open to purchase,” she said.

As brands strive to make a difference in the world for pets and to keep up with digital trends, pet owners recognize the power brands can have in their own lives.

“That personal connection between you and a brand goes a long way, and makes you feel like a part of their community,” wrote McGill and Sullivan, Cooper’s parents.