Q&A: Bark’s Vice President of Brand Reach and Affinity on How Innovation Powers the Company

'Good enough' isn't good enough, said Allison Stadd

Allison Stadd will take the stage as a speaker at Challenger Brands: A Brandweek Event, Feb. 6-7, in New York. Bark
Headshot of T.L. Stanley

Scroll through Bark’s social media feeds, and you’ll find photos and videos of frisky canines ripping into their latest bundles of toys and treats. It’s classic unboxing, but with teeth and slobber.

It also captures the tone and personality of Bark and BarkBox, its direct-to-consumer subscription service that creates more than 430 products a year and counts upwards of 7.5 million social followers. The brand, with 600,000 subscribers and $200 million in 2018 sales, relies less on traditional marketing and more on comedy with original content like Dog Mom Anthem. (Sample lyrics from the rap music video that went viral: “Never leave the house without my lint roller, hell yeah, I got a geriatric pug in this stroller. His Instagram is popping, I don’t mean maybe, he gets more likes than my sister’s baby.”)

Allison Stadd, Bark’s vp of brand reach and affinity and a veteran of Sweetgreen and Shake Shack, will take the stage as a speaker at Challenger Brands: A Brandweek Event, Feb. 6-7, in New York. Ahead of that gathering, which will feature C-suite executives from Levi’s, MeUndies, Peloton, Skinnygirl and other companies, Stadd talked with Adweek about evolving DTC trends (BarkBox has a thriving Target presence now), launching a country club for dogs (Nashville’s experiential BarkPark) and using data as a way to innovate in the $86 billion pet industry.

Adweek: What do you see as your most significant marketing challenge of 2019?
Allison Stadd: Our focus is on figuring out how we market the experiences of our products to consumers that don’t live online. So many dog parents still shop in-store and don’t know the excitement of the hashtag #BarkBoxDay. How do we convey that same experience in our retail touchpoints and via traditional marketing efforts? Those are the questions that my team is focused on right now.

So much of what we have done at Bark has been for the fun of it. We made a rap music video (Dog Mom Anthem) because we wanted to laugh about the silly quirks that all dog parents know about, and yet we ended up building brand recognition from it. The Dog Mom Rap became the best performing piece of brand content in May 2017 and 2018 (determined by Unmetric), which is incredible. As much as that did for us, the strategy of “build it and they will come” doesn’t work like it used to. All direct-to-consumer brands will face this challenge in 2019.

"[T]he strategy of 'build it and they will come' doesn’t work like it used to. All direct-to-consumer brands will face this challenge in 2019."

Talk about the trend of DTC companies like yours heading into brick-and-mortar retail. Why is it important, what is it doing to build your brand?
Digital marketing and online engagement can only go so far to accomplish business goals and milestones. Being direct-to-consumer is great for building trust, engagement and a community, but there’s a limit before you have to look elsewhere for new customers. Swaths of potential customers aren’t interested in the on-demand nature of subscription boxes or DTC offerings, so reaching them where they already are—in places like Target or a pop-up shop—is incredibly important. Those people have dogs, too!

It’s fascinating to see the way retail is changing at the hands of direct to consumer brands, because everyone has a different strategy. We’ve taken a slightly different approach because our customer is the dog. A traditional brick-and-mortar storefront won’t work for us, because dogs don’t typically enjoy browsing the aisles listlessly—they like to run, play, touch, chew, taste. A members-only dog park with toys, treats, coffee and WiFi (for the humans) makes sense because that’s where our customers are—at the dog park—so we built that exact concept in Nashville. BarkPark is our version of brick-and-mortar, but the goal is less to sell product and more to build brand awareness and engagement with those folks that don’t already know us from BarkBox.

Above all, we want the experiences we create to foster an authentic relationship with our customers, and it’s important to do that online and offline. We learn something new about our customers and how they want to engage with us every time we try something.

The pop-up BarkPark in Nashville mixed retail and experience—talk about the strategy behind it and plans for its return there or expansion elsewhere.
BarkPark is the world’s first membership-based outdoor dog clubhouse, based in Nashville, and Bark’s first space designed for dogs and their people to unite and unwind. Humans have plenty of options for where to spend their time away from home and work—coffeehouses, bars, concert halls. But those places all say: “No dogs allowed.” There is no “third space” for dogs and their people. So we built it.

BarkPark is a powerful community gathering place for dogs and their people. It transformed an empty, overgrown lot into a warm, dynamic space where friendships (and even a member romance!) are formed, puppies learn to socialize and humans can get work done or share a bottle of wine while their dog roams free.

The city and people of Nashville have been incredibly supportive, and we look forward to reopening the park in the spring. We hope to bring it to other cities in the future.

How did your new subscription product, Super Chewer, come to be, and do you expect to launch more programs like it?
Super Chewer is a monthly subscription box for the elite athletes of the dog world. It’s made for those dogs who have a strong toy drive and a desire to chew, and it’s a direct reflection of the customer feedback that we have received.

Our [customer service] Happy Team fields hundreds of thousands of phone calls, emails, text messages and more each year and noticed a common thread of dogs who were chewing through the classic BarkBox plush toys in minutes. Our team of in-house product designers took those insights and set to work developing a product line to address this specific play style. The results are toys made specifically for tough chewers that are fun for both the human and the dog, unlike many durable products historically on the market.

Our best products, services and experiences are inspired by direct customer feedback, and this way of thinking is central to our business model. We are constantly listening to customers and thinking about what’s the next best thing that we create. It’s in our DNA, and we’re already working on new product lines and offerings that follow a similar pattern.   

"If we're not doing something different and exciting and leaps-and-bounds better than anything else, what's the point of us?"

@TLStanleyLA tlstanley8@yahoo.com T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.
Publish date: January 16, 2019 https://dev.adweek.com/brand-marketing/qa-barks-vice-president-of-brand-marketing-on-how-innovation-powers-the-company/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT