The Black Dog, Summer ’98

Sep 01, 1999 9:30 PM  By

Which is the front and which is the back?” asks one puzzled judge about The Black Dog catalog. The tabloid-size cover depicts a young woman and what appears to be an older man boarding a boat. (“Who is he – her father? Her older lover?” a judge queries.)

But if you turn the catalog over and fold it, two other images create a digest-size front and back cover. Though some judges are confused – if not dismayed – by this unconventional cover design, most have to agree that it stands out. One panelist even gushes at using half of one cover to state the company’s guarantee: “It’s fantastic! So few catalogers make good use of the back cover.”

But then, this is no conventional cataloger. The Black Dog is an offshoot of the tavern/restaurant of the same name on Martha’s Vineyard, the touristy island haven off the Massachusetts coast. The catalog’s flow is “funky and charming,” piling information and images onto pages that somehow do not appear cluttered. A judge comments that the low-key island lifestyle is smoothly translated in the design: “The catalog does this homespun look very nicely; it’s not amateurish.” Lifestyle photographs also capture the island atmosphere, with pages displaying people sailing, wrapped in beach towels, or lounging on sun-blanched piers. “I feel like I am on Martha’s Vineyard,” remarks another judge.

Although the merchandise is mostly apparel, the ubiquitous Black Dog icon appears on everything from T-shirts to weathervanes. By embossing the icon on otherwise ordinary items, a judge says, “the company creates a unique product line.”

The copy reflects the mood of the catalog: upbeat, playful, and thorough. The description of the catalog’s varsity jacket is an example of the copy’s practical humor: “Soft Napa leather sleeves turn away the cold. And it’s fun – it has attitude. Life is short – strut a little.” As one judge says, “The customer who identifies with this probably has an offbeat, individual sense of style.”

For the most part, the judges are pleased with the customer service. The catalog thoroughly explains its shipping and return policies, provides size charts, and even offers recipes from the restaurant. But several judges criticize the lack of a toll-free customer service line.

The Black Dog, which mails only to its house file, serves a following that’s evidently as loyal as the Labrador that appears on its products. This, plus the liveliness of the copy, the flow of the design, and the familiarity of the Black Dog icon, make the catalog a sure-fire winner.