According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA), 39 percent of American households own at least one dog, and there are 74 million dogs owned in the US. The APPMA estimates US pet owners spent over US$ 15 billion just on food for their pets in 2006.
There's good news for brands targeting dog owners in Japan, too. According to Japan Market Intelligence, dogs and cats there now outnumber children under 15 years old, and 40 percent of Japanese households own dogs.
Still, when Dan Dye and Mark Beckloff created Three Dog Bakery, they weren't thinking about big branding opportunities in the US, Japan, or anywhere else, for that matter. They were simply thinking about their three dogs: Sarah Jean, Dottie, and Gracie. What Dye and Beckloff really wanted was to find dog treats free of additives and artificial ingredients. They couldn't locate any, so in 1989, they baked their own and opened Three Dog Bakery in Kansas City, Missouri.
Today the company has more than 30 stores in the US and Canada, seven in Japan, and two in South Korea. Along the way, Dye and Beckloff spun off a television cooking show for dogs, a mail-order business, several books (including the story of their Great Dane, Amazing Gracie: A Dog's Tale, and Cooking the Three Dog Bakery Way) and the non-profit Gracie Foundation for abused, neglected, and homeless dogs.
As with many strong brands, the idea for Three Dog Bakery started with a unique product concept. Dye and Beckloff describe their mission on the company's website this way: "To fresh-bake the world's best dog biscuits and give dog lovers everywhere a healthy, all-natural bone-ified treat [for] their favorite four-legged friends."
The partners worked hard on their product, speaking with veterinarians, endlessly experimenting with different recipes and, of course, taste-testing with their three dogs. Over the years, they have kept their product line fresh—literally—with cleverly named bakery items, such as "beagle bagels," "snicker poodles," and "Dottie's dipped delights." They have also expanded into a full line of dog food.
But it didn't happen overnight. Three Dog Bakery was a single location for five years. Then, in December 1994, a Wall Street Journal reporter poked around the Kansas City store and wrote a story that appeared on the front page of the paper's Marketplace section. That's when it started raining cats and dogs (forgive the pun).
In 1999, Dye authored an article, "Unleash the Power of the National Media," for the entrepreneurial Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation's website, EntreWorld, in which he recalls what happened after the Wall Street Journal story ran: "By the end of the first day, we were six weeks backlogged on mail orders. By the end of the second day, we were ten weeks backlogged. We were besieged with calls for almost two weeks. After that came a deluge of requests for interviews from so many other national media [outlets] that we eventually stopped counting."
Three Dog Bakery was featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the Tonight Show, and National Public Radio, and written up in such publications as the New York Times, People, and USA Today. Dye says Three Dog Bakery spent less than $10,000 on paid advertising at the time. Instead, the company garnered all the attention from national publicity and word of mouth. He called public relations "the single greatest contributor to our company's growth."
While it may have been publicity that catapulted Three Dog Bakery to national fame, it was the strength of the brand that maintained its momentum. The company's logo is a simple black dog bone with the words "Three Dog Bakery" printed in funky white type that has a hand-lettered quality to it. This same type is used throughout the company's website and on its product packaging.
Graphics play an important part in conveying the brand's character. Whimsical cartoon illustrations adorn boldly colored product labels. Three Dog Bakery has its own language as well, using in its promotional copy probably every dog-related pun in existence. On its website, for example, you can order from the "DOGalog." (The term is a registered trademark.) The items you select will be put into your "Shopping Basset." You'll find information about Three Dog Bakery in a section called "Company Pawticulars." To find a bakery location, you'll need to "Sniff Out a Store." If you want to make a comment, you must "Bark Back."
Fortunately, there is a Three Dog Bakery in dog-friendly Asheville, North Carolina, where I live. Visiting the store is like a study in brand immersion. Everything about it, from the large dog bone in the window, to the colorful products on the shelves, to the friendly staff wearing "Three Dog Bakery" shirts, is inviting and cheery. (Naturally, dogs are welcome with open paws.)
But the best part of the store is undoubtedly the bakery cases. Here, a dog's wildest fantasies come true—there are baked cookies, cakes, and pastries that look as good as what a gourmet bake shop would display (each, unsurprisingly, with a clever name). What dog owner could possibly resist buying one of these treats for that special friend? And each, I am told, is made with such high-quality, all-natural ingredients that it is even fit for human consumption.
While Three Dog Bakery makes its products available to select pet stores, it carefully controls its store growth. Its business philosophy is interesting: Three Dog Bakery licenses its trademark rather than franchises stores. The difference, says the company, is that instead of paying franchise and royalty fees, the licensee can invest his or her own capital in the store and the inventory. The licensee must agree to purchase branded products and abide by Three Dog Bakery's branding standards.
Three Dog Bakery is the category brand leader, but not surprisingly, it might have inspired local, national, and international competitors. The competition is largely single-location dog bakeries like Mon Bon Chien in Paris. A few, such as Groovy Dog Bakery, which has bakeries or product distribution in five US states, are doggedly trying to duplicate the Three Dog model. Given Three Dog Bakery's 18-year history of pooch-pleasing success, however, other competitors may just be barking up the wrong tree.