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BAN THE BONE

Why Barkbox hires people from Disney and Lego to design toys for dogs

woman with puppy
Reuters/Claro Cortes IV
In on the joke.
  • Sarah Todd
By Sarah Todd

Senior reporter, Quartz and Quartz at Work

Published Last updated

Bark doesn’t do paw prints. No bone or fire hydrant designs, either. Instead, the 1.1 million pet owners who partake in the company’s monthly subscription service receive boxes filled with inventive arrays of dog toys and treats, from plush, pastel boxes filled with stuffed macaroons (a highly popular item from a recent Paris-themed package) to Thanksgiving-appropriate “Corn on the Slob,” complete with a crinkly green husk and nylon stalk with which to play tug-of-war.

“We have an internal rule called ‘Ban the Bone,’” says Henrik Werdelin, a Bark co-founder who leads design and product development at the eight-year-old company. “We don’t want to do things that are obvious.”

So far, that emphasis on originality has served Bark well. With more than 400 employees, and most recently valued at $1.6 billion, Bark announced plans to go public in December and expects to earn $365 million in revenue for the fiscal year ending March 31. In addition to its popular subscription service, BarkBox, where a six-month subscription costs $26 a month, individual toys are available for purchase at US retail chains like Target, Costco, Petsmart, Petco, Bed Bath & Beyond, and CVS.

Clearly, Bark has emerged as a big winner in the booming pet industrial complex, as companies tap into the huge and, until recently, largely underserved market of adoring pet owners who see their four-legged friends as a part of the family, and are willing to spend accordingly.

The secret to Bark’s success, according to Werdelin, lies in a simple principle: “Design for symbiosis.” That means creating toys that will amuse and entertain both dogs and their owners. “It’s a little bit like Pixar,” he says. “When you watch those movies, they have both adult jokes, and jokes for the kids.”

The company believes that Bark toys have to work on both levels, with materials, sounds, scents, and shapes that will satisfy and stimulate the canine audience, and designs that their besotted humans will enjoy showing off.

As one example, Bark frequently hides surprise “bonus” toys inside stuffed animals that dogs discover only after destroying their outer layers. A mouse turns out to have a squeaker inside shaped like a block of cheese; a wombat, from the Australia-themed box, contains the marsupial’s signature cube-shaped poop. The practice started with Consuela the Cactus, one of the company’s most popular products. (Bark sells about 2,000 Consuelas a day when the toy is in stock.) The smiling Consuela “has an unhappy cactus inside,” Werdelin says. “The first time we were number one on Reddit was with her.”

In order to maintain a spirit of invention, Werdelin says, Bark hired people who didn’t have previous experience with pet toys. “You didn’t have a lot of innovation in the dog industry,” he notes. Instead, the company brought on employees who’d worked in kids’ entertainment at places like Disney and Nickelodeon, as well as at children’s toy manufacturers like Mattel, Lego, Fisher Price, and Baby Einstein.

“We wanted to kind of bring character design and narrative to the toys,” Werdelin says. “And that is something that hadn’t been done before in the dog-toy business … We’re very inspired by how Disney really merged storytelling with content and toys and experience design.”

Bark also soon found that it was helpful to hire comedians looking for day jobs, who could inject irreverent humor into the typically staid world of dog toys. “We wanted to make it funny,” Werdelin says. The company has embraced a certain level of playful edginess, creating 4/20-themed edition of bongs and blunts. The “Bark After Dark” landing page on its website was created after customers pointed out multiple products that bore an unintentional resemblance to sex toys (most famously the pigs-in-a-blanket toy, which generated good-humored controversy when it was first released).

As more millennials delay or forgo having kids, it makes sense that Bark appeals to people who are into the “lifestyle of being a dog owner,” as Werdelin puts it. In the pre-Covid era, Bark was leaning heavily into the idea of building an in-person dog-loving community, with a members-only dog park in Nashville (chosen because of its reputation as a uniquely pet-friendly city) featuring standup comedy and movie nights.

But Werdelin also says that young, urban dog parents are just one part of the company’s core audience, and that Bark has increasingly gained ground in middle America and with older folks. The two stereotypical customers, he says, are “a mid-30s woman who works in media in New York, where the dog is her child, and then a 55-year-old really cool mom from Texas.”

And Bark’s appeal is expanding to an even broader swath of pet owners as it launches newer products, including a collection of durable SuperChewer toys for more active, outdoorsy pups and a line of home items including poop bags printed with hip-hop-inspired slogans (“I love it when you call me big poop-a”) and minimalist memory-foam dog beds. (“I’m Scandinavian, so I like an aesthetically pleasing design,” Werdelin says.)

As Bark continues to draw inspiration from Disney and Pixar, it’s also getting into licensing familiar characters like the Grinch, Scooby Doo, and the Peanuts gang.

Down the line, it’s looking to do more partnerships of this kind, perhaps providing the canine-friendly toys tied to the latest Marvel blockbuster or animated Disney movie. “We have more and more of the big companies that are coming to us now and saying ‘Let’s do a collaboration,’” Werdelin says, putting trust in Bark to “figure out how you see our entertainment world from a dog’s-eye view.”