How Marketing Helped Milk-Bone Create the $3 Billion Dog-Treat Market

The 108-year-old brand still dominates

If it weren't for the organic chemist who invented margarine, the dogs of America would have no treats.

Or so the story goes, but first the facts. Dog treats are serious business in this country. According to the American Pet Products Association, over 54 million households include a dog (often more than one, as the total number of pet dogs stands at 77.8 million). Americans dropped a cool $23 billion on food for their dogs last year, a figure that includes $3 billion just for treats. And of those treats? The most popular is Milk-Bone dog biscuits.

Nick Ferrari

What's more, Milk-Bone has enjoyed that status for 108 years. Like ChapStick, Kleenex and Q-tips, Milk-Bone has become synonymous with its category. "Milk-Bone is an iconic brand," said Leslie May, founder of consulting firm Pawsible Marketing (whose focus, as the name suggests, is pets). "At its core, the brand represents the love we have for our dogs and the love our dogs have for us—and that's a powerful, unexplainable and overwhelming feeling."

 

How did Milk-Bone come to own an association so powerful? Well, it started with that organic chemist named Carleton Ellis. In 1907, Ellis began devising a way to use "waste milk" generated by slaughterhouses. His solution was to add it to batter for baked dog treats. When Ellis' own dog turned up his nose at the first batch, the inventor tried baking them in molds the shape of bones, which did the trick. The following year, a baker named Frederick H. Bennett—creator of Wheatsworth crackers—began making the biscuits in his New York bakery. The original trade name of Malatoid became Milk-Bone in 1915 when Bennett decided to stress milk as a nutritious ingredient.

Rin Tin Tin: John Springer Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

But according to May, Milk-Bone's domination of the dog-treat market didn't owe itself to the recipe as much as the marketing. After World War II, Milk-Bone (by then owned by Nabisco) took advantage of the new medium of television with saccharine but affecting spots that usually featured an all-American lad feeding treats to his dog—most famously, Corporal Rusty and his German Shepherd Rinty from the ABC show The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. By timing its branding message to baby boomers when dogs were slowly becoming full-fledged members of the American family, Milk-Bone created a segment and solidified its place in the new human-pet dynamic. "They tapped into that love," May said, "and they never let up."

Indeed not. "We continue to innovate with new products that make our dogs happy and healthy," said Maribeth Burns, communications vp for J.M. Smucker, which bought Milk-Bone last year.

Which is not to say that everyone loves Milk-Bone. The increasing popularity of natural foods has caused many a pet owner to growl at that red box's oft-unpronounceable ingredient list. But as a mass-market name, Milk-Bone—which today comes in over 20 varieties—remains, well, top dog.

This story first appeared in the November 14, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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