McDonald's Could Sniff Out New Ground With Yappy Meals

Commentary: Fast Feeders Should Consider Tossing a Bone to Dog Owners

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The last time I wrote a column about dogs, I got in big trouble.

Back when we started Crain's Chicago Business, in 1978, I wrote a column about my dog running away and our efforts to find her. My point was: Don't take the word of your local dog pound that your pet isn't there. Our dog was at the pound all along -- they just couldn't tell she was a female!

At the time I wrote my column, we were trying to establish the credibility of our new publication, and our sales staff didn't think my column was sufficiently serious. So they drew straws to decide who was going to tell me that my column was too frivolous for our august journal. Gloria Scoby drew the short straw and delivered the message. As I recall, I told her I appreciated her (and the ad staff's) concerns, but I wanted to occasionally write about our readers' day-to-day (nonbusiness) lives.

But I guess her warning made me wary of writing anything about dogs -- until now. I hope Gloria will understand that this time I'm approaching the topic strictly from a marketing point of view, although the subject matter still revolves around my dog, an 8-year-old female chocolate lab named CoCo (for CoCo Chanel, not the color of the beverage).

The pet market, I don't need to tell you, is huge. Pet lovers will lavish more than $43 billion on their animal companions this year. Such devotion leads me to believe that non-pet marketers who can figure out a way to tap into all that pampering (The Wall Street Journal reported that formerly "bare bones" kennels have transformed themselves into posh daycare services that offer doggie massages and other amenities) will earn the undying loyalty of pet owners.

My wife, Merrilee, and I are as guilty of pampering our pet as anybody. We feel like we're depriving CoCo if we go out to do a chore and we don't take her along. How's this for pathetic? Sometimes I'll go with Merrilee just to keep CoCo company.

So wouldn't it be worthwhile for marketers to cater to pets who accompany their owners on the road? We took CoCo along when we went through the drive-thru at McDonald's (in fact, the only reason we went through the drive-thru was because we didn't want to leave CoCo at home). The cashier gave her a Happy Trails dog cookie, which she very much appreciated, and I got to thinking that this kind gesture could be a whole new market for McDonald's.

McDonald's and other fast feeders must have research that shows what percentage of their customers are pet owners. A little further questioning could determine whether offering pet treats at the takeout window would influence where consumers would take their business.

And think how McDonald's and others could help out vacationers. If you were traveling in your car for a day or more, wouldn't it be great to be able to pull into McDonald's and get a little plastic bowl of water and a ration of dog food along with your Quarter Pounder?

McDonald's already offers the Happy Meal for kids, so why not bring out the Doggie Meal for dogs (or, as Merrilee suggested, the Yappy Meal)? It would consist of a small water bottle, a plastic bowl, a snack portion of dog food (or a meal portion if you're on a long trip) plus a stuffed toy with the McDonald's logo. And if the McDog idea caught on and the dog-lover market proved to be as responsive as I think would, the bigger McDonald's outlets, those with play areas for kids, could also provide play areas for dogs.

I'd suggest similar accommodations and products for cats, but let's be honest: Cats are way too finicky to accommodate. They don't even like to ride in cars.
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