Let's talk about Dunkin' Donuts. Does the brand name really mean anything to you?

Because after their surprising announcement this week, it's hard to imagine anyone will feel the same about them.

Here's the big change they announced, the unexpected way that it matters most, and where it now leaves Dunk's, 70 years old but with no apparent idea what it wants to be when it grows up.

A massive identity crisis

I don't like saying this, but it's becoming clear that Dunk's has a big identity crisis.

I grew up in New England, and I'm still loyal to Dunk's. Heck, I literally wrote half this article in a Dunk's down the street from my house. It's still the common denominator from Bangor to Greenwich--from Red Sox Nation to that little sliver of Connecticut that roots for the Yankees.

It's in our blue collar New England blood. One time in Massachusetts, I took a picture of myself standing in the parking lot of one Dunkin' Donuts, where I could see two other nearby Dunkin' Donuts.

But you could see the big change coming when the company said it's changing its name in 2019, dropping the "Donuts," so that "Dunkin' Donuts" is now just "Dunkin'."

Nobody likes that idea. It's wicked stupid, and it's hard to imagine anyone will call it that.

You do hear Dunk's for short, or even just Dunkin's with an "s." But "Dunkin'?" That's like if McDonald's suddenly announced they wanted to be called "Mac." 

But as bad as the name change is, at least that's just aesthetic. The bigger issue is what happened next

We're 'cheaper than Starbucks!'

As The Wall Street Journal put it, the menu adjustments that Dunk's announced this past week amount to the biggest change to the chain in at least 15 years.

Short version, from a press release: new, supposedly better espresso, along with lattes, cappuccinos, Americanos and macchiatos. 

Now, even though I'm criticizing Dunk's here, the actual menu updates themselves are welcome. I like a good macchiato as much as the next guy. I'll probably try them.

But the problem is that as the Journal puts it, the new goal of Dunk's seems to be to convince customers that they're "cheaper than Starbucks and just as good."

In other words, they're not comparing themselves to themselves anymore and simply trying to get better. Instead, they're comparing themselves to Starbucks.

That suggests they no longer longer knows who their customers are, or how to reach them, and it clearly seem like they're coming up short. 

From beloved to just a coffee

As their marketing chief, Tony Weisman, told the Journal"There's no reason to go to Starbucks anymore."

Ouch. I mean, I don't know about that. 

Dunk's is apparently going to sell a 16-ounce hot latte for $3.59, which the Journal compared to $4.19 at Starbucks. But is 60 cents really worth changing your preferences and your routine? Are Americans really that cheap?

Besides, from Dunk's perspective, as soon as you start doing that--saying our product is just the same as the other guys but a little bit cheaper--you turn whatever it is that you sell into a pure commodity.

I don't care if we're talking about coffee, or cars or consulting. If you want to compete on price alone, you'd better own the scale and the margins in your industry.

Otherwise, what's the point for your customer?

That's the big issue here. I know that Dunk's wants to expand more far beyond the friendly confines of New England. They have 9,200 stores and they want a lot more. 

But "just as good as those guys, only cheaper" isn't likely to attract anyone.

If all I'm doing is buying a cup of coffee, or even a fancy espresso, I may as well go to Cumberland Farms.

Because when I think of Dunkin' Donuts, I'm not sure I'll think of anything.

Published on: Oct 28, 2018
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