Dog lovers Matt Meeker, Carly Strife and Henrik Werdelin founded BARK on the simple principle that every dog everywhere — no matter the age, size or circumstance — deserves to be happy. Their first product, BarkBox, a monthly subscription service that includes toys and treats, began shipping in 2012, chang-ing the $69 billion pet industry. Since then BARK has focused on serving 60 million U.S. dog homes.
Rich Sargente joined the company in March 2016 as vice president of sales and general manager of its retail business, overseeing BARK’s growing retail partner network of ecommerce and bricks-and-mortar merchants. In August 2017, BARK began selling customized toy and treat collections in Target stores nationwide. Prior to BARK, Sargente served as Jabra’s North America general manager of consumer solutions. He has held senior sales positions at Skullcandy, Panasonic and Philips Electronics.
Help us understand how BARK began
It all started when our CEO Matt Meeker couldn’t find toys that were strong enough to stand up to his Great Dane and looked fun. I think Matt knew he had something special when his dad ordered a BarkBox without knowing his son was in charge of this “little” outfit. More than six years later, BARK consists of BarkBox, BarkShop.com and our retail partner network, which includes more than 1,800 Target stores nationwide.
We also have a long-term vision to make every dog happy and healthy by ensuring BARK products are available to all dog parents. We believe BARK has the best toys, treats, lifestyle accessories and experiences to offer dog parents, and we want them to have easy access to our products through strategic partners. These channels have helped us grow to 2 million customers. We serve more than 600,000 active customers each month. We also have more than 7.5 million followers on social media.
What’s the story with BARK’s social media strategy?
Our social audience was part of our growth plan from day one and because of our ability to convey a real, raw brand personality that they can relate to, they’ve only become more engaged with us over the years. We want to continue finding new ways to connect with them and deliver the products, service and fun they’ve come to expect from us. Our current marketing approach mirrors our retail strategy — reaching every dog person by using the right channels alongside like-minded brands.
Can you share some specifics?
Over the years we’ve used paid and organic strategies on Facebook and other platforms. As we look to grow exposure of BarkBox, BarkShop and our partner network, we want to efficiently and strategically go beyond reaching folks that are primarily on social media. We started diversifying late last year when we launched direct response television and direct mail campaigns, but there are a number of other segments that we’ve built out. Affiliate marketing is currently one of our most efficient proactive marketing tactics. We’re leaning heavy into rewards partnerships with larger brands and have built out formal relationships with a ton of local rescues and shelters all around the country. Experiential marketing is a growing area for us as well.
Can you talk about BARK’s bricks-and-mortar retail partnerships?
It became apparent that we could not achieve that vision without a strong retail presence. Now, almost a year after launching in Target, we’re taking a lot of the learnings from our success there and applying them to further evolve our retail strategy.
Everything we do has a very clear “BARK” spin to it, and that creativity and individuality extends to retail. We understand the competitive environment that bricks-and-mortar retailers are in now and strategically design our product assortments and marketing plans to support their needs.
What can you share about the Target partnership?
We want to continue finding new ways to connect with customers and deliver the products, service and fun they’ve come to expect from us.
Target, like many retailers, was eager to rapidly improve its position in the pet category and recognized the value that the BARK brand can offer to help drive new business and create more engaging experiences in the aisle. At the same time, 33 million customers walk through Target stores each week, positioning BARK with the immediate scale we were looking for. It became clear the partnership was going to be mutually beneficial and a clear strategic win for both. In addition to our evergreen greatest hits on Target’s in-line shelves, BARK offers new, timely and fun themes every six to eight weeks.
We’re not taking the industry-standard approach of distributing our products along typical channel lines. Instead, we see the value of treating every retailer as a unique partnership, crafting customized collections and unique products, and developing marketing approaches custom to each relationship.
Integrating technology helps us create exceptional experiences. We recently started experimenting with tech-based experiences like SMS chatbot games to create an experiential extension of each product and our brand. These are the kinds of connections we’ve always used to keep our customers happy, and it can happen at retail too — we just have to think a little differently about how we bring that experience to life.
How is BARK able to customize the offer for each distribution channel?
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for our customers. We’re rapidly scaling our operations for growth while maintaining a lean and incredibly talented team to drive exciting new content and experiences for the dogs we love. We started BarkBox with three variations (by size only), and we now ship tens of thousands of different variations for our customers. This same ethos carries over from BarkBox across all businesses. It’s also what led to Super Chewer, which now stands as a completely new product offering for a completely different play style from our classic Box.
In our other lines of business, we’ve learned that different products do better in different channels, and we’ve had to scale our operations to account for that. For example, we create customized product lines for each sales channel based on customer feedback, insight from our retail partners and data. We also design all products in-house, with our creative team introducing more than 430 new toys to the world every year — that doesn’t account for our treats, supplements, chews and accessories.
What can BARK lovers look forward to next?
We’re getting ready to announce more bricks-and-mortar retailers and online ecommerce destinations. We want our retailer portfolio to have a balance of mass accessibility for our customers and alignment with like-minded brands. In the past two months alone, we’ve secured new unique retail relationships with Urban Outfitters and Bluestone Lane, with more amazing partnerships on the horizon. We’ve also lined up some exciting relationships for the holidays that we think customers will really enjoy.
Janet Groeber has covered all aspects of the retail industry for more than 20 years. Her reporting has appeared in AdWeek and DDI Magazine, among others.