Monday, April 07, 2008

From Shera to Sheru

This is probably my first consumer/society related writing on China. It has taken me long to start writing about this new place that I am in, may be I am growing old and I want to think a lot before writing anything or may be it is just more correct not to pass sweeping statements about a society and culture that is so old (as old as Indian or may be even older) and a society that I know so little of. I will first share an observation and then move to the possible implication.

Of course there are no pets by the name of Shera or Sheru, in China, but these names summarize the difference in relationship that exists between the owner and his pet, in Big City and Upcountry China.
This observation and enquiry was triggered by a statement that one of my Chinese friends made the other day. She said “my relatives in my Mom’s hometown were really surprised when they saw me pampering my Dog, while I was there visiting them in the holidays. They thought it was strange for me to treat my Dog like a toy or a Doll..”
This got me thinking and I began talking to more people abut their pets here and if any of their relatives from smaller town have pets and how do they kept them & treated them. Here is what I discovered - In big cities the role of a pet is more of a companion. A companion to old grand parents, to the widower Nannies, to the old parents who are alone as their only child is out of town or country to work or study (‘empty nesters’ in marketing parlance).
Pets are not just pals of older folk, even young girls living alone or with their friends; spinsters who have been in and out of multiple or a few relationships, love to have a Cat to caress or a dog to walk.
The pet is like a companion, a friend, a family member/partner. Thus his or her status is the same (well almost) as other members of the family. They eat the best food available in the market for them, they sleep in the bed like everyone else, and they get special grooming kits (shampoos etc) like others in the family, even clothes for different weather. The interaction with the pet is more conversational, so if you overhear what is being said to the pet – you could easily mistake it to be something that is being said to a person.
Why is it like this? What does this give the ‘owner’ in return? In fact is ‘owner’ the right word to use here?
Well I suppose what they get is something close to what I call ‘Unconditional love!’ Or perhaps a great listener, who anyway can’t talk (or not at least in a language that the owner can understand).

Cut to upcountry China – and the story is very different. The families are bigger and even for a small family (or lonely parents) they have friends and neighbours. These friends and neighbours are available to talk to, confide in, and share feelings with, much more than what their city counterparts could ever imagine.
Does this mean that upcountry China does not need pets? Well, they do but for an entirely different reason – ‘Security’.
Pets (predominantly dogs) are more of cheap labour.
No wonder when my friend was cuddling her dog in her country home – her relatives were surprised.
In these non urban locations, the interaction between ‘owner’ (yes it sounds much better here) and the pet is much more instructional, giving commands most of the time (remember cheap labour!); the pet stays outside home most of the time and even if they step in there are no-go-zones clearly demarcated viz. kitchen, bed etc. Here the pet is not as much a part of the family as it is a part of the family infrastructure/support services.
Pets (predominantly dogs) are more of cheap labour.

So what does it mean? Well, from society point of view I look at big cities as torch bearers of the imminent loneliness and the desire to belong. China has smaller families, in big cities the family network = household and household is usually not more than 3 people strong. As the young ones in family grow up and go independent they start staying alone sometimes even before they are married. No wonder, these parents would need support.
Of course pets are not the only support, but they have a big role to play. Add to this the fact that these young boys or girls who are staying alone are marrying late (if they are i.e.) and there are many more broken marriages in urban China today than 5 years back.
Even this younger group needs companionship and pets come in handy even with this section of the society.

From the marketing point of view:
A huge pet food and pet indulgence market in making (if not already there);
A huge ‘eating out and indulging oneself’ market;
A large ‘drink to forget loneliness’ market

Also, noteworthy is the fact that this might not necessarily a China phenomenon. Many countries in the west have already gone through this cycle of need for unconditional companionship and many countries in Asia might be heading towards it.

Sheru after all is a much bigger marketing opportunity than Shera.
Marketing to me seems to be more and more of manipulation - manipulating personalities, manipulating society.
(I sure am not going to heaven after all!)