If you want to see how far Dunkin’ Donuts has come, look no further than last year’s presidential election, when candidates were tripping over one other to give a shout out to the brand.
It got so bad that some media outlets considered it newsworthy that the Obama Campaign’s Dunkin’ Donuts tab for the last three months of 2007 came to $352.69. Why did that matter? There was a debate brewing that Obama was a “Starbucks Democrat” while Hillary Clinton was a “Dunkin’ Democrat.” (Republican John McCain was cited as a Dunkin’ fan as well—Dunkin’ Donuts and Coke were said to be his dietary staples.)
Leave it to the Brits—specifically, Gerard Baker of the London Times—to finally put it all in perspective for us: “Mr. Obama’s supporters are latte liberals,” the columnist wrote. “These are the people for whom Starbucks, with its $5 cup of coffee and fancy bakers, is not just a consumer choice but a lifestyle. They not only have the money. They share the values.” In contrast, Dunkin’ Donut Democrats “do not have money to waste on multihypenated coffee drinks…They are the 75-cent coffee and doughnut crowd.”
It all seemed to prove that to be down with real Americans these days, you had to prove how Dunkin’ you were. (Never mind that Dunkin’ Donuts has no stores in 16 states of our great land.)
Dunkin’ Donuts, a 58-year-old chain that has about one-third as many outlets as Starbucks, didn’t come by its workingman street cred by accident. In the 1980s, the brand’s icon was a balding, mustachioed little man who rose at dawn and groaned, “Time to make the donuts.” By 2006, the brand had introduced “America Runs on Dunkin'”—a tagline that stuck to the public’s recession-addled consciousness like a warm cruller.
Bolstered by ads from Hill, Holliday showing Dunkin’-consuming people working their butts off, the claim has been a neat bit of counter-programming against Starbucks, which was waylaid by both the economy and its own overexpansion. As a result, the privately held Dunkin’ (which happens to be in heavy expansion mode itself right now) boosted its sales by 6 percent last year, and although funding from the troubled lender CIT took some Dunkin’ franchises out of the game, analysts say Dunkin’ is making all the right moves. “They’re a tough competitor,” says Ron Paul, president and CEO of restaurant-chain tracker Technomic. “They’ve turned up the heat on Starbucks.”
Credit for that goes to Frances Allen, the chain’s brand marketing officer. Allen, a veteran of PepsiCo and Sony Ericsson who cut her teeth in the London ad scene in the ’80s, joined Dunkin’ in 2007. By that point, “American Runs on Dunkin'” had been running for about a year. Kevin Moehlenkamp, chief creative officer of Hill, Holliday, says Allen was smart enough to know not to mess with a good thing. Before that, Dunkin’ had gone through a few taglines, most recently “Bring Yourself Back,” which touted the restorative power of coffee. “A lot of times the CMO will come in and say ‘I’m putting my stamp on this brand and I’m gonna change it,'” Moehlenkamp says. “But right away she came in and said, ‘I love this brand and you’ve nailed the voice.'”
Which is not to say that Allen merely stood by and let the old message do its thing. Her job, she says, is to make sure that that brand insight is not lost and that the advertising not only stays true to theme, but also stays fresh. Hence an early 2009 ad push themed “You Kin’ Do It” which was inspired less by the Obama campaign’s “Yes we can” slogan than the fact that “Kin’ Do” is embedded in the name Dunkin’ Donuts.
Allen’s rock-solid belief in the campaign goes hand in hand with her faith in research. The brand and the agency spent a lot of time identifying the “Dunkin’ Tribe” as they call it. Intelligence gathering involved an utterly pitiless deprivation exercise in which regular Dunkin’ drinkers were forced to go coffeeless over several days and then asked to discuss their feelings. “On the inside, they were very much defined by this mentality of what we call the ‘blue-collar heart,'” says Moehlenkamp, who describes that as “the feeling that you’re the guy who keeps American running and doesn’t get a whole lot of credit even though everything else is kind of falling apart around you.”
Sound familiar? Who over the past year or so hasn’t felt that way as the economy flirted with a full-blown Depression and those who kept their jobs were largely expected to do more work and not complain about it? In a climate where public life ran on a mixture of fear and hope, Dunkin’ coffee turned out to be the perfect elixir.