Angela Natividad's Live & Uncensored!

29 June 2006

America: Shifting Gears for Caffeine of Choice?

In what's been called the "most significant repositioning effort" in the company's 55-year history, Dunkin' Donuts has launched a fresh campaign under the tagline "America Runs on Dunkin'." The campaign vibes fun-loving American quirkiness, sunshine and smiles and the good, ol' Protestant work ethic that brought us all here - an appropriate position, considering it aims to "[invigorate] the hard-working people that keep America running day-to-day," according to to John Gilbert, VP of Marketing at Dunkin' Donuts.

Since its acquisition by a collective of private equity firms last month, Dunkin' Donuts has been pursuing an ambitious campaign strategy with the intention of tripling its reach in the next ten years, aggressively targeting the West in particular, where Dunkin' Donuts franchises are few and far-between.

I've kept Dunkin' Donuts in my periphery for the last few months because I began to suspect early on that it's making waves in the waters of that green mermaid we all know and love. I say this because it doesn't even try to whoop Starbucks in its own chic arena, a mistake many other purveyors of "fine coffee" have made, leaving them looking like cheap imitations in the shadow of the Big Green.

While Starbucks has made a niche out of its third-place policy, creating an elegant environment for the type of people who get a kick out of saying words like "tall, grande, venti" to the croons of Michael Bublé, Dunkin' steers its course in the opposite route, emotionally connecting with the av'rage Joe who might feel a little weird walking into barista-ville with paint-speckled jeans. He doesn't want to reinvent the (perfectly suitable) terminology for small, medium and large. The soundtrack to his life probably won't include heavy helpings of Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. He just wants a good, unpretentious caffeine fix before going back to making an honest day's living.

And have you met anyone who's had a cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee? It's a bit like a religion - one of those quiet religions, the likes of which carried the spirits of Netflix and Diesel before they possessed the public cachet they do today. I have friends who actually order out to the East Coast for Dunkin' Donuts beans because we haven't got a franchise nearby. I can hardly say the same for Starbucks, which isn't exactly known for great-tasting coffee.

Don't get me wrong. My love affair with Starbucks has lasted almost a decade. I fell in love with the green aprons, Italian sizes and holiday lattés laced in foam. It did a beautiful job of bringing a pseudo-European café experience to a prototype American that was otherwise indifferent to his or her paper-encased black puddle. Starbucks converted espresso education and complex, finicky orders into serious cultural capital.

But the wind changes, and in a world gone mad, the day dawns for an America that represents the simpler things. Amidst polarizing politics, confusing wars, the growing worthlessness of an increasingly costly undergrad education, and sports heroes on steroids, we're too tired to play the caffeine elitist. What anchors us to shore? What reminds us of our roots, our worldview, our very raison d'être?

A marketing undercurrent that whispers, "America runs on Dunkin'."

Av'rage Joe wants to go back to saying, "A cup of coffee, please." But now it's an emotionally charged statement that means something different than it did before Starbucks turned coffee into high culture. With the dawning of the Dunkin' Donuts age, the old statement ties us back to Americana - the apple pie values comprising a hard-working bunch of people who are just trying to work out that "pursuit of happiness" thing. When that small, simple request slips out of your mouth, it's a little uplifting to know you've anchored yourself back to all that.

So keep your eyes on Dunkin' Donuts. In far less than ten years, it's going to contribute to a serious cultural shift. Caffeine-wise, anyway.

The "America Runs on Dunkin'" campaign was developed by Hill, Holiday.

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