Since the fall, Dunkin’ Donuts has been running a new ad campaign and it is about Starbucks, but really it is about class and ideas about class in contemporary America.
I just saw an advertisement during the Jets-Colts game for Dunkin’ Donuts, announcing that Dunkin’ beat Starbucks in a blind taste test. But the ad also makes clear this is about more than coffee, it is about class or really perception and pretention. In the ad, we are told that a majority of HARDWORKING Americans prefer Dunkin’ Donuts to Starbucks.
Hardworking Americans. The idea links Dunkin’ Donuts to ordinary Americans and to a common sense style of purchasing and of utility. Starbucks in this binary is linked to the rich and frivolous. The ads further suggest that Dunkin’ Donuts is about coffee, while Starbucks is about “couches and music” – really it is about people more interested in the frills of the brand than the actual qualities of the product.
“Our consumer profile is very strong,” Frances Allen, a Dunkin’s brand marketing officer – that’s quite a job title – told a reporter, “It is hardworking Americans who are busy people. They don’t have time to hang around. They want to get in the store, they want the product served fresh, they want it affordable, and they want it fast.”
Now what does that make Starbucks customers, not hardworking Americans or people lots to waste on an inferior product?
This isn’t the first time that coffee marketing in the Starbucks era wasn’t about coffee, but about ideas of class.
Last year, McDonalds launched a web-site to go with its new reasonably priced “premium” coffee called, unsnobby.com.
Before Starbucks grew to what it is now, people didn’t fuss over their coffee or read too much into it. There was no social stigma attached to fetching a cup of joe from a pot on the hot plate at the Mobil station or drinking instant at home or Folgers out at a restaurant. Coffee was fuel. It was a hot, caffeine-loaded, culturally sanctioned psychoactive drug. But nowadays, what you drink and where you drink it communicates something fundamental about who you are. Albany New York business writer Marlene Kennedy sensed the change. “When my daughter was younger,” she wrote in 2006, “we had no Starbucks in town, so I couldn’t gauge whether she’d grow up with blue-collar, drip coffee tastes or trendy, espresso-based ones.”
In 2005, the Wall Street Journal reported that Dunkin’ Donuts paid a dozen loyal customers one hundred dollars each to go to Starbucks everyday for a week. At the same time, they paid twelve Starbucks customers to try Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. What happened surprised Justin Holloway, the advertising executive who designed the experiment. No one switched teams, or “tribes” as Holloway dubbed them. But these allegiances did not revolve around coffee. They turned on status and class, and to a less extent, gender identities.
Holloway reported that Starbucks customers didn’t like Dunkin’ Donuts’ standardized decor or drinks. It felt too much like McDonalds to them and sliced into their sense of individual difference. They bristled, for instance, when employees – not baristas — poured pre-determined amounts of milk and sugar into their drinks. “The Starbucks people,” Holloway sneered, “couldn’t bear that they weren’t special anymore.” One of Holloway’s associates concluded that Starbucks patrons “seek out things that make them feel important.” They could get coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts (and McDonalds), but they couldn’t get that sense of elevated status at these more utilitarian places, so they stayed away.
Dunkin’ Donuts devotes reacted just as strongly. They felt out of place at Starbucks. They didn’t like being around all those serious-looking men and women banging away at their laptops. And why didn’t they have jobs or offices to go to anyway, they wondered? Why do you have to say grande when you wanted a medium? And how do you pronounce grande? But mostly they couldn’t understand why anyone in their right mind would pay four dollars for a cup of coffee. One customer told a researcher that hanging out at Starbucks made him feel like he was “celebrating Christmas with people you don’t know.”
Dunkin’ Donuts continued its ethnographic research in 2006. Like a lot of companies, they were trying to figure out how to compete with Starbucks. Despite its name, Dunkin’ Donuts is now in the coffee business. Coffee represents 63 percent of its total sales. In the coffee industry, lattes and frappuccino-like drinks deliver the biggest profit margins. Dunkin’ Dunuts, therefore, wanted a piece of this pie. But at the same time, company officials learned from their research that if they associated their brand too closely with the symbols of yuppiedom and the culture of trading up they would push away their core audience. At one point, Dunkin’ Donuts officials toyed with the idea of putting couches in stores. But they junked the idea not long after one faithful customer told them, “if he wanted to sit on a couch, he’d stay home.” When the company test marketed a sandwich on crusty, seasoned bread with peppered meat and melted cheese in between, they called it “panini.” Customers recoiled, saying the name was “too fancy.” In response, Dunkin’ Donuts executives renamed the hot sandwich “stuffed melt,” and it sold well. At the end of the day, Dunkin’ Donuts marketers found out that its customers embraced the brands’ straightforward, blue-collar, man on the street identity, so that’s what they sold. “America runs on Dunkin,” proclaimed one slogan. In a more direct shot at Starbucks, a Dunkin’ Donuts advertisement decreed that it would bring an end to “the tyranny of long waits, high prices, and confusing sizes.”
“Why no wi-fi?” I asked Dunkin’ Donuts vice president of marketing John Gilbert, in in 2006 in his office at the company’s corporate orange-trimmed headquarters outside of Boston. I called him after I read a newspaper article that quoted him as saying with Starbucks clearly in mind, “We’re not about music and WiFi and couches and fireplaces.” Dunkin Dounts customers, he told me, are more self-confident than Starbucks patrons. But still, imagine, he said, a construction worker who comes everyday to get drinks for eight of his co-workers. “What happens,” he continued, “when he pulls up and there is no place in the parking lot to park his truck and then he walks into the store he sees the place filled with all these people he doesn’t recognize on their laptops.”
“What’s wrong with people on laptops?” I asked, perhaps a little self-conscious.
“Dunkin’ customers,” Gilbert answered, “see Starbucks people as people with nothing else to do.” In other words, these aren’t honest, hardworking people. They are posers.
In an interesting twist, Dunkin’ Donuts has started to put off its own aspirational glow. Some urban professionals with high incomes gravitate to the brand and its working-class coffee to demonstrate that they aren’t “coffee snobs.” (A whole bunch of others, however, are heading to independent, uber coffee shops run by self-described coffee geeks and connoisseurs.) By going to Dunkin’ Donuts they try to show that despite their decent sized paychecks they identify with the New England company’s “blue collar bona fides” and “working-class ethnos.” Other go to show that they won’t – or can’t – be sucked in by Starbucks’ class making appeals. My neighbor told me one day, for instance, that he goes Dunkin’ Donuts just to be “contrary.”
Lily Geismer grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a part of the country where she explained to me, “Dunkin’ Donuts verges on an obsession surpassed only maybe by the Red Sox. Over coffee a few years ago at the Espresso Royale across from the main part of the University of Michigan campus and down the street from the Starbucks, she told me about her fascination with “D and D.” Boston, she reminded me, remains an “intensely class and racially stratified city.” Except at Dunkin’ Donuts, said Lily. She saw these shops as one of the city’s “few democratic spaces.” To illustrate her point, she told me about her father, a man she tenderly described as an “overeducated lawyer from Cambridge who is a snob about so many other and it is true (as I have now confirmed.)” But he prefers Dunkin’ Donuts to Starbucks “because he doesn’t want a fancy drink” or a “milkshake.” He just wants “a cup of coffee,” not burnt and not over-caffeinated. Yet as Lily explained, this was about more than coffee. More importantly, this was a way for her dad to demonstrate his politics, a commitment to populism and broad-based equality.
Denny Marie Post wasn’t surprised by what the Dunkin’ Donuts researchers learned or what Lily Geismer told me. For the last thirty years, she has worked in the fast food business. These days she’s with T-Mobile, following a short sting as the senior vice president of global food and beverage for Starbucks, but before that and when I talked with her, she worked for Burger King and held the position of “chief concept director.”
Denny recalled for me over the phone an “uh-ha” coffee moment. Between flights at O’Hare or Hartsfield – one of those big airports — she waited in line at a Starbucks. In front of her stood two soldiers, both in uniform. They stared up at the menu board. They couldn’t figure it out. What did the drink names mean? What was with the sizes? Where was the coffee? “They are terrified,” Denny told me, adding, “the person behind the counter wasn’t very helpful.” Even though she is a tea drinker, she decided to step in.
“Just order a venti coffee,” she advised them. They did and wandered away with their drinks. Denny, however, couldn’t get that moment out of her head. She kept thinking to herself, “They face life and death every day and they are scared. They don’t know how to order. There’s something wrong.”
Over the next few months, she put her staff at Burger King to work on “Big Joe” coffee – a coffee according to advertisements that come in three sizes, small, medium, and large,” and two varieties, regular and turbo. The only difference between the two kinds is that turbo contains more caffeine. With this coffee, Burger King doesn’t tell a story about where the beans come from or the combination of flavors – hints of citrus with a touch of chocolate — in the blend or how its products help to make the world a better place. Taking a jab at Starbucks, the sign for Big Joe says, “If you want expensive coffee buy two.” Not long after Big Joe’s launch, Denny told a reporter that the new product was the “anti-Starbucks.”
Burger King customers, Denny said, loved the new coffee. But again, it wasn’t really about coffee. People who eat Whoppers and BK Broilers, Denny observed, “don’t read the New York Times,” and they don’t want their coffee “complicated, like a chai half de-caf whatever.” What they want, her focus groups, market research, and instincts told her, was “straight-forward” Joe, rather than “frou-frou” coffee.
That “fro, fro” line was a good one, I said to Denny when we talked, but what exactly did you mean, I asked? “The whole ambience” of Starbucks, she answered, “is continental, chic and skews feminine.” She continued, “The need to know (or pretend to know) how to pronounce words derived from Italian or French – the feigned expert customization regarding levels of foam, types of milk – all of it adds up to making a public and rather superficial statement about oneself.” To her, Fro fro, is “unnecessarily accessorized.” “The whole experience,” Denny concludes, “is a bit more than it really need be but that’s what makes it special for the Starbucks devotee.”
Once again, the negatives – the Dunkin Donut ad men and the anti-Starbucks people — got it right. Starbucks is not simply a coffee thing or even an efficient caffeine delivery system. It became a form of expression – a way that people tell others about themselves and about how they want to be perceived. And others – that is the power of Starbucks – understand the distinctions and coded meanings about class and status, although they might not embrace them or make them their own.
By Bryant Simon.