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PUN FACTORY

Inside Bark’s winning formula for designing irresistible dog toys

By Anne Quito & Jacob Templin

Bark is on a roll. Viagrowl plush pill, Namuttste yoga mat, the Chewniversal remote. 

The thriving New York-based start-up best known for their subscription service called BarkBox, has identified the formula for the ideal dog toy. Though many of their chew toys sound totally frivolous designing them is no joke says Bark’s creative lead Mikkel Holm Jensen.

“Designing toys is definitely silly and crazy, but we also have a very serious, almost scientific approach to it,” explains Jensen, a Danish industrial designer who worked at LEGO’s FutureLab before joining Bark in 2015. Jensen left his dream job at LEGO because he was piqued by Bark’s mission to address the lackluster range of pet products available in the US market. “Designing dog toys hasn’t really been a category that industrial designers have been trying to break into. It’s been a boring category and we’re aggressively trying to change that,” he says.

Founded in 2011, Bark has pioneered a series of dog-focused branded programs for the US and Canadian markets. Aside from BarkBox, it has a photo-sharing app BarkCam, a lifestyle site called BarkPost, and a pet adoption platform,” BarkBuddy. Last year, Bark began selling its toys and treats at Target.

Bark’s design process begins with research. Packed in every BarkBox sent to 600,000 subscribers is a survey questioning dog parents about their beloved canine’s playing styles. The design team also gets anecdotal data from their Ohio-based customer service team who chat with with BarkBox loyalists about how toys were received. Based on user insights, Jensen and his team creates goofy toys that heighten a dog’s natural play style—chewing, fetching, or even destruction play.

“We know what a golden retriever in Kansas will like compared to a chihuahua in Seattle,” claims Jensen.

BarkBox’s survey also quizzes owners about their aesthetic preferences. After all, designing a successful toy means appealing to humans who are spending up to $1 billion a year on dog toys in the US. Who exactly are they designing for—pun-loving owners or their frisky pets? Jensen says it’s different for every toy. Bark’s “pose and play” line called “Lights, Camera Bark,” for instance, is primarily for Instagram-loving pet owners.

Bark & Co.
Giggles.

Comedy sells

Bark’s secret sauce is comedy. “Humor is a core part of what we do,” says Jensen who admits he’s not exactly the most natural jokester. ”Part of it is leaning into the life of a dog,” Jensen explains without irony.

Most toys begin with a joke. Bark has stand-up comedians on staff who come up with ideas for toys and write advertising copy to promote them. “It starts with a brainstorm. We sit around trying and try to make each other laugh,” explains Dan Grossman, head of Bark’s industrial design department. With products like the “Hallechewjah! Emoji Hands,” and the “Totally ‘Grammable” avocado toast plush toy, Bark’s comic troupe mines newsy topics and memes and translates them to hilarious dog products.

Bark & Co.
Avocado toast.

Stacie Grissom, Bark’s head of content, is in charge of hiring comedians. She says dogs and humor make for a natural pairing. “People are so drawn to dogs and dogs in humorous content. It’s hard to do but it also make us really likable and silly,” she explains.

Anne Quito / Quartz
Dog rest.

“I also think that dogs are the funniest creatures. The other night I was sitting on the couch trying to watch Downton Abbey, then the whole apartment smelled. She just farted on the couch,” laughs Grissom pointing to her frisky chihuahua playing by her feet.

Staff comics also come up with Bark’s product names, and Grissom says the challenge is to steer clear of expected dog puns. “We had to ban ‘paw puns’ for a while, because all of us were using them too much. We’ve gotta push ourselves.”

Humor is institutionalized throughout Bark’s Chinatown office. The 3D printer is named “Florence, the Machine,” for instance and Bark opens its offices to dog owners and their pets for a regular schedule of stand-up comedy nights. Of course the presence of unpredictable dogs foils any corporate setting: During Quartz’s visit, there was a patient bulldog perched on an office chair and a pert Maltese dutifully sitting in on a strategy meeting while a chorus of pups playfully howl in the background.

The Dognald: America united

Inevitably, some jokes have flopped. Jensen explains that toys shaped like real personalities don’t really sell as much, except for one flame-haired exception: the Dognald Trump.

Bark & Co.
Squeaker.

The Dognald is Bark’s bestselling toy ever. Jensen says the plush squeaker effigy of the 45th president has been a hit on both sides of the political spectrum. Trump supporters bought them as a sign of support, and his critics bought them for the cathartic release of seeing their pets mangle it. “It doesn’t matter where you are in the political spectrum, the dogs unite us,” muses Jensen. Bark declined to release sales numbers, but the Dognald is now sold out.

Notably, the Hillary Kitten toy didn’t do as well.

Can you improve on the stick?

So why all this careful design work for undiscerning dogs? Won’t a simple stick suffice?  Jensen says it’s about the evolving attitudes of pet owners. “Part of it is this humanization of the dog…dog needs haven’t changed in thousands of years, they’re still animals who like to chew things. But we’ve changed,” says Jensen. Dog parents clamor for safer, better-developed toys, as pets become vital members of many households. Through wit, pun, slapstick and the occasional political swag—Bark’s toys allow owners to share life experiences with their dogs.

“Dogs are not kids but there are a lot of references that comes through,” says Jensen. “It’s as much a reflection of us as it is about the dog.”