Startups aren’t always the best marketers. Building a brand from scratch is hard. Having ideas and making them into real things is one thing, but marketing and building a brand out of these things is another.
BarkBox is a startup that is just getting its arms around building its brand. Barkbox is a monthly subscription e-commerce company for dog products. It was founded only seven months ago by dog-lovers Henrik Werdelin of startup incubator Prehype, entrepreneur Matt Meeker (who is also co-founder of Meetup.com), and former Uber employee Carly Strife. None of them has a background in marketing.
The idea for BarkBox came from Meeker and his great dane Hugo. As a puppy Hugo was already 100 pounds, and Meeker felt he couldn’t always find stuff for Hugo at pet-supply chains like Petco and Petsmart and would have to go out of his way to find cool, unique dog-product suppliers. And thus the idea for BarkBox was born: start a higher-end subscription doggie product service for urban dog owners who want to pamper their pooches. Monthly Barkboxes include new treat samples, chew toys, bones and so on. It’s basically Birchbox for dogs.
“We wanted to be a positive, fun, higher-end brand for ‘dog parents,’” explained Meeker. To do so, it made charity a core part of the business model: 10 percent of all proceeds goes to animal shelters and rescues.
While the brand message may have been established early on, Meeker confessed, they didn’t really have a marketing strategy. They first quietly launched a very basic version of the site to test the waters to see if people even wanted a service like BarkBox. After getting positive feedback from consumers, they went ahead into the marketing process and the launch of the full site and services this past January.
BarkBox uses search ads and an email newsletter with tips and fun lists for dog owners, but word of mouth has been key. “The most effective marketing has been customer referrals,” said Meeker. “That and these customer box opening videos. People have started to do these video reviews with their dogs and putting them on YouTube. That’s been tremendous in getting us new customers.” One marketing tactic BarkBox used was sending out free boxes to YouTube reviewers as a way to test out new products, which Werdelin said worked well.
BarkBox is making its most ambitious foray into marketing with an animated series “Hugo,” which features a rescue dog (named after Meeker’s dog) doing the cute, funny and sometimes annoying things that dogs do (like shaking off water all over the place after a swim). BarkBox has a second show in production, which is more of an “America’s Got Talent” type of show that features real dogs from around the city showing off their unique talents. Tying back into the BarkBox brand message, all of the videos end with some information about dog shelters and rescues in the U.S. to encourage people to get more involved.
“We believe that we can both make a content business, support shelter dogs and strengthen our brand,” said Werdelin of the videos.
According to Meeker, BarkBox has plans for other content and products to further create a sense of community for BarkBox subscribers and dog parents in general. For example, they are playing around with the idea of a Fitbit-type device for dogs so that owners can keep an eye on their dog’s health and exercise. There is also a BarkBox mobile app coming soon.
“We think the hardest part is to stay loyal and consistent to your narrative, your character and attitude,” said Werdelin of the challenges of establishing a startup as a brand. “If you are not consistent in your approach, design and tone, it sends a signal of insecurity and flakiness. We are committed to be the world’s best place for dog parents and hope and trust that our brand will keep reflecting that.”