The drowning dog

There is a small restaurant in Martha's Vineyard called The Black Dog. It's a quaint, rustic establishment that serves upscale seafood dishes. The Black Dog is a restaurant, and it is a good one. The story could end right here.

But it doesn't, because in terms of merchandise proliferation, this tiny eatery rivals the freaking Hard Rock Cafe.

I spent a few days on the island and boy, I just could not miss The Black Dog. It. Was. Everywhere. Shopping bags from The Black Dog. Hats and t-shirts and sweatshirts and bandanas and tote bags from The Black Dog. Kids carrying stuffed animals of The Black Dog. The Black Dog Bakery. The Black Dog General Store. The Black Dog Kids Store. And venture inside one of these stores? Black Dog shot glasses, coffee mugs, cozies and baseball caps and bathing suits and beach towels and people, this has passed the point of no return. (I felt like David Cross on his American flag rant. Eat the Black Dog. Eat it.)

The Black Dog owns a font. It owns a logo. It owns a certain breed of canine. It owns half the real estate on Martha's Vineyard! It basically owns the island, and for most intents and purposes, this is a good thing. For the owners, it's good business. For the tourists, it narrows down their dinner options and souvenir choices. And for the locals, well, there seems to be a constant, unconditional outpouring of love and dollars for anything with The Black Dog on it. People love that crazy dog.

But my question is, why? I spent four days, had about four thousand Black Dog brand impressions, and still don't know what the fuss is about. In fact, I feel absolutely no connection with that silly mutt. Maybe it's because the wait at the restaurant was 40 minutes long and they didn't take reservations, which left me disenchanted. Maybe it's because we ate at the Black Dog Bakery instead, which was overhyped and a bit disappointing. Maybe it's because I saw no real black dog running around, and that was what I was hoping for. Maybe the legacy was just lost on me.

Now I have to assume that the locals know the legend. They've heard the story of the old sea captain, his loyal black dog and his tall ship, and how he provided food to hungry sailors long before there were any year-round restaurants on the island. For more Black Dog lore, its website is chock full of stories. But the stories don't get communicated anywhere in the physical world, and I think that leads to a big disconnect. People are buying products, but they don't know why.

There's an important ratio at stake here: I'll call it the ratio of core offering to fluff. In some places, the core offering is primary, such as an authentic meal at a simple diner. The food is good; end of story. In some places the two are balanced, such as Joe's Crab Shack, which offers a quirky atmosphere, affordable seafood and snarky t-shirts at the front. Part core, part fluff. And then there is The Black Dog, where the fluff is just disproportionately huge. There is one Black Dog Tavern, and there are 12 General Stores.

Now god bless the folks who run The Black Dog, for they must be overjoyed at this level of growth. Their brand is synonymous with Martha's Vineyard - you almost can't board the exit ferry without showing your shopping bag. Furthermore, all brands start somewhere, and the Black Dog's humble beginnings are grounded in a very real, very beautiful core offering.

And I know that it would be hard to replicate The Black Dog's core offering (its restaurant) every half a mile. Nobody but Starbucks can pull that off. Plus, why would they? The restaurant's lure is partially its exclusivity, its scarcity. To add franchises would water it down. I also know that the company is simply responding to demand - hey, when tourists are clamoring to buy your coffee mugs, why not make shot glasses? And so on.

But I think at some point, you have to practice restraint, because the brand just gets diluted. When does that happen? Well, this brand is most certainly diluted when the dog is no longer black. Or when it's wearing random costumes. Or when your line extensions become totally unrelated (I'll buy a beach tote, but not a mousepad!) It's diluted when nobody can get a seat at your tables, so they simply substitute the experience for a store-bought replica. When people buy your stuff but have no idea what it means. When they only buy it because everyone else already has.

Black Dog, I applaud you for your recent expansion. I just hope you can find a way to stay focused on your core offering. You should tell your story, whether by retail design, a museum-like exhibit, books or cultural events or even another restaurant. I want to love you, just like everyone else does. You just have to give me a reason.


Anonymous said...

“curious shopper”.

lighten up… they're called “souvenirs” and “tourists”
Two, not so attractive parts, of American culture.
People spend down time in trendy parts of the states, (and the world)
and get sucked into buying little trinkets that commemorate their time.
What comes along with this are the shopping bags, hats, signs and t-shirts that become trite and useless a few weeks or even days later.
All you comments could relate to Disney, Mt Rushmore, Yellowstone or Paris.
My niece came back from Florida with not so cheap hat that had mouse ears, which has since disappeared into the bottom of her closet never to be seen again.
Don’t blame the Black Dog for over saturating with brand impressions.
Blame the people who feel the need to encourage them on.

sara said...

Thanks for your comments, anonymous. I agree, attractive destinations generate tourists, which generate souvenirs. And while few souvenirs have any real function or longevity, people still want them. Souvenirs fill a human need - the desire to take home a piece of our great vacations and world travels. To remember the good times, if you will.

Disney has created an enormous core offering, and its merchandise is somewhat balanced with that offering. At Disney World, you might ride ten rides, meet Mickey in the restaurant, see a parade and then buy some mouse ears. I think it's perfectly natural for you to want them.

But the Black Dog is one small restaurant. So often, people are taking home a "piece of the experience," without even having the experience! It's unbalanced and strange.

You say we should "blame the people who feel the need to encourage them on." Are you referring to the tourists? I don't think it's their fault. They want a piece of the action; they don't want to be the only ones without a Black Dog bag on the ferry.