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Bark & Co’s Nine Tips for Building a Brand

Marketers are always looking for the right target audience. Perhaps they should pay closer attention to the segments containing four legs and a wet nose.

According to the American Pet Product Association, 54.4 million U.S. households own a dog, and last year U.S. pet industry expenditures reached $60.59 billion.

Henrik Werdelin decided he wanted to take a bite out of this pet-owner population when he cofounded Bark & Co. in 2011. But he knew he couldn’t gain consumers’ loyalty and trust by simply barking at them. Instead, he decided to grow the company, home to monthly subscription service BarkBox and dog adoption app BarkBuddy, by focusing on its customers’ needs and providing opportunities for engagement.

“When we were trying to build our brand we felt like we had to do it in a new way,” he said at the Next Stage at SXSW in Austin. 

During his time on stage, Werdelin shared his brand-growing secrets. Here are nine key takeaways that are sure to help any marketer get their brand some puppy love from its customers. 

1. Relinquish control of your brand.

Marketers spend a lot of time and money trying to shape consumers’ perceptions of their brand. But a brand isn’t defined by what its marketers convey, Werdelin said; it’s defined by what other people say about the company and the emotions it stirs within them. 

“Brands are what other people say when they hear the name of your company,” he said.

Social media makes this idea of a consumer-defined brand even more prevalent. And even though giving up control of the brand’s messaging can be intimidating, Werdelin said that it can also strengthen consumers’ trust in a company. That’s one reason that BarkBox Bark & Co will retweet questions, but not reply, when people ask their social networks what they think about the company. Instead, it lets its consumers respond and advocate for them.

“It’s daunting to have someone communicate on your behalf,” Werdelin said, “but those are the signals that people trust the most.”

2. Hold everyone accountable.

If marketers want customers to believe in a brand’s vision, then their coworkers have to believe in it, too. Indeed, for a brand to be successful, Werdelin said that an entire organization needs to live by what its brand stands for. To show how Bark & Co’s employees embody the brand’s DNA from the top down, Werdelin showed the SXSW audience a message from the company’s financial department filled with dog terms and puns. He also discussed how Bark & Co has a dog-friendly work environment, where canines at the office can enjoy a snack in the company’s kitchen or simply sit in their owner’s lap at their desk.

“We hired some very cool dog parents that are as dog fanatic as we are,” Werdelin said.

3. Pay attention to the data.

To improve their product offering, Bark & Co’s team spends a great deal of time mining data. Not only does Werdelin try to unravel every detail of his products, such as the plushness of a stuffed toy, but he also tries to understand the specific kinds of dogs that receive them.

“All of that data allows us to build better and better products,” he said.

But dogs aren’t the only ones getting in on the fun. Werdelin believes that each dog toy should create an enjoyable experience for the owner, too. So, sometimes the company’s toy names are pop culture references. For example, it produced plush toys called The Dognald and Hillary Kitten as a reference to the presidential elections.

4. Focus on the user, not the industry

Bark & Co’s customers don’t think of their dogs as a utility; they consider their pets part of their family.The brand follow suit. Its marketers showcase canine companions as integral parts of their customers’ lifestyles. As a result, the company offers a variety of products that meet their lifestyle needs, such as BarkBox subscriptions, which send owners monthly toys and treats for their four-legged friends, and BarkLive offline activations, which bring dog-loving communities together through events.

Werdelin said that the brand’s content is less utility-focused, as well. Instead of including articles on its BarkPost blog on such topics as how to train a dog, the company produces videos and articles like this Dog’s Best Day video that tug on dog owners’ heartstrings.

“This idea of trying to follow the user instead of the industry is something that has worked very well for us,” Werdelin said. 

5. Don’t be afraid to show your attitude.

Every brand has it’s own personality, and Bark & Co’s marketers aren’t afraid to let theirs shine. One way the dog-friendly company does this is by posting videos of dogs humping one another to its Facebook page every Wednesday—otherwise known as “hump day.” It even created a video comparing dog toys to human sex toys

Werdelin says that the brand produces this content to entertain and delight its consumers, even if it means displaying some bad humor. As he puts it, “Brands that don’t emotionally connect with people are boring.”

6. Home in on your brand narrative.

Any brand can advertise, but Werdelin said it’s more important for marketers to focus on their brand narrative, so customers can understand it, share it, and tell their own related stories. In the case of BarkBox, customers love to post pictures of their dogs tearing into their BarkBox packages on Instagram.

7. Productize your internal brand tools.

Bark & Co knows that customers are talking about its brand online. So, it provides consumers and staff members with tools and content to help facilitate those conversations—something Werdelin referred to as an “inside-out” strategy. For instance, it has a tool called the “factory” that provides design talent for anyone in the company. It also provides its team with dog doodles and puns to enable lighthearted conversations that are true to the brand.

8. Show empathy

Brands need to be there for their customers in the good times and in bad. When a customer cancels a BarkBox account because their pet has died or even shares that their dog is sick, Bark & Co’s team will show empathy by mailing them a card signed by office members. 

9. Offer consumers a “place to hang,” even when they’re not buying.

Fostering a relationship with consumers is important, and it shouldn’t be solely dependent on driving sales. Werdelin says Bark & Co has been able to grow its business by providing its staff and customers opportunities to engage in a non-sales environment. It hosts everything from date nights to comedy hours where people can brings their dogs and simply be a part of a dog-lovers community. 

Put simply: The best way to grow a brand? Throw customers a bone.

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