Dunkin Donuts could have been years ahead of Starbucks, if they had only asked me

It was many years ago (before I became committed to the building products marketing world) when I got my first lesson in sales & marketing alignment.

I was 13 years old, and as many teenagers, I got a job working at a fast-food franchise. My goal at the time was not to learn about the nuances of business — but rather to earn a little extra spending money — to be able to afford life’s little pleasures like at the time, 8-track tapes.

While most kids my age were flipping burgers, I was making donuts at Dunkin Donuts, which recently renamed itself to simply Dunkin. More on that a little later.

Part of my job, in addition to making sure the bins were stocked with jelly-filled, Boston crème and double-glazed treats, was to work the cash register. It was there I had my first lesson in “the voice of the customer”.

Donuts, of course, are virtually inseparable from coffee. When customers came in to place their order for a chocolate glazed donut (or a couple dozen for the office) they invariably ordered a cup of coffee to warm their spirits and open their eyes — as they continued on their journey.

It was during that time that Dunkin Donuts developed a reputation for having pretty darn good coffee. It wasn’t just my coffee-making skills, but across their entire organization. People really enjoyed the coffee, as it was something different and better than what they were used to.

At that time, we didn’t have as many options for coffee as we do today. There was no Starbucks, of course, at least not outside Seattle. And coffee shops simply didn’t exist like they do today.

As a result, I frequently got requests from customers at point-of-purchase. “Do you sell your coffee beans?” they would ask (more often than you might imagine).

At that time in the American landscape, in addition to the dearth of coffee shops, there were precious few options for consumers to buy coffee to brew at home. People simply went to the grocery store. Bought a tin can of Folgers pre-ground coffee. And that was it.

My simple, teenaged brain didn’t comprehend the opportunity. But thinking back, it was a profound moment. What if the channels existed that allowed me — a sugar-covered kid working the cash register — to report these customer requests up, to the powers that be at Dunkin Donuts headquarters? But they never asked.

I don’t know if they would have possessed the desire or ability to adjust their offerings, but at the very least there was a significant customer need that was not being met. By anyone. Remember, this was the pre-Starbucks era.

And now comes news that my former employer is changing its name to Dunkin and removing the Donuts promise in its re-branding.

Yes, they have at long-last fully realized the growth opportunity in selling their coffee beans.

Sipping is Believing

In 1948, William Rosenberg founded a restaurant in Quincy, Mass., named “Open Kettle,” reflecting the hot oil used for frying doughnuts, which he sold for 5 cents each and cups of coffee for 10. Two years later, Rosenberg branded the business “Dunkin’ Donuts.”

Dunking Donuts Rebranding

Which has since grown to some 12,000 locations in 45 countries. The franchise chain now serves almost 2 billion cups of coffee every year — at a price a lot higher than 10 cents.

Dunkin’ Donuts has been on a first-name basis with its fans, according to the company: long before the introduction of its iconic tagline, America Runs on Dunkin. So, as the marketplace today has embraced “keto” diets — where carbs and sugar are avoided — the Dunkin’ re-brand will go company-wide starting in January 2019.

The lesson in all of this is, the people on the front lines of any company, whether they’re teenagers working the cash register, representatives working the contractor counter at a plumbing wholesaler, or sales reps calling on builders, have vital information.

They’re the ones who interact with customers every day, fielding their questions and handling their requests. This happens at building products companies as well as fast-food joints.

3 Myths About Rebranding

Hilton Barbour who studies innovation, ingenuity and inspiration has observed, “Rebranding initiatives are typically driven by a need to re-ignite sluggish performance, capitalize on a new positioning or highlight the arrival of a post-M&A brand.” The key of course, is to mitigate potential risk that can come with change. And in the case of a rebrand, it means transitioning established brand equity from one form to another. Key to making the right decisions is to plan a runway… where rebranding evolves from business strategy and actionable-insights that “percolate” from customer desires. Sorry, I couldn’t help avoiding the coffee analogy. So yes, rebranding is about participation, not presentation.

Consider these three common rebranding myths to help ensure success:

Myth #1: A Rebrand Will Change Who We Are
A rebrand is going to change some things, but it doesn’t have to be the complete death of everything you once were. While new solutions that make new promises beyond where your brand previously resonated… existing culture and values can evolve to include what has been added or changed.

Myth #2: Existing Customers won’t Embrace this Change
To ensure that audience reaction will be “thrill” rather than “rage” your re-branding must come from a sense of purpose. Without purpose, re-branding may be considered as wasteful. Most important, is to realize what your prospects and loyal partners desire and expect. Better to delight them with positive change — which directly addresses their needs — rather than what appears to be arbitrary change, that may tend to confuse them.

Myth #3: But what about the visuals – we will need to reprint and re-package everything
Re-branding is much more than a new logo. While Dunkin’ has modernized their logo slightly, it is not a radical departure from what customers know and recognize. The re-brand is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. While visuals are a part of your brand, they’re not everything. Like much in the natural world, the only constant in branding is change.

As marketers, if you can find ways to harvest that front-line information, you may be able to notice patterns and spot opportunities to market your products better. Or even offer new products that could lead your company into lucrative new territories.

But it starts by communicating with, and understanding your customer-facing staff. Invest time with them. Ride along on sales calls. Develop relationships and give them the means and incentives to communicate their experiences to you.

You never know what a sticky-fingered, crackly voiced teenager can tell you.