The Black Dog, Holiday 1998

Sep 01, 1999 9:30 PM  By

This catalog treats the buyer as a member of the Martha’s Vineyard community. It’s flattering,” assesses one judge. Indeed, The Black Dog, which originates from the Massachusetts resort island, evokes the feel of a village newspaper – but then, not all the judges are in love with the catalog’s homespun feel. “There are so many different layouts and inconsistent product treatments – some illustration, some photography – that you never get a sense of what it’s about,” says a judge.

There is one element of constancy throughout the catalog, though: the company’s signature Labrador retriever icon, which shows up on everything from china sets to weathervanes, from charm bracelets to jars of jam. If there’s a product that The Black Dog can co-opt into its merchandise line by painting, casting, or otherwise affixing to it the image of a black Lab, you’ll find it in this catalog. As one judge remarks, “This is not a haphazard collection thrown together by accident. This is shrewd branding.”

Nonetheless, one judge contends that “the concept won’t appeal to people who don’t `get’ Martha’s Vineyard or have never heard of The Black Dog Tavern,” the restaurant that created the catalog to extend its summertime tourist business into the off-season. Other judges are less troubled by the catalog’s niche appeal, however, especially given that the catalog’s robust sales are enough to make any marketer pine for such a niche.

To strengthen the bond with its niche audience, The Black Dog doesn’t pass up an opportunity to feature snapshots of customers (and their dogs) throughout the catalog. This connection is also enhanced by the catalog’s nonselling content, including local recipes and updates on community events listed in the calendar.

Although decidedly low-key when it comes to trumpeting customer service, The Black Dog has reinforced this area of its business, using its understated copy voice to state, “We have some new friends helping us answer the phone. Call any day, any time.” The guarantee states, “We hope that you will be more than satisfied with our service and our products. If you are not, just let us know.”

For The Black Dog, the laid-back formula works. Its customers are compelled to open this catalog the way they might open a letter from an old friend. As one judge says, “There’s no toll-free number on the cover, no featured products or positioning lines. But I saw that mischievous dog, and I just had to look inside.”