Ad Report Card


A Dunkin’ Donuts ad for an addict nation.

The Spot: In one long take, the camera snakes through the bustling center of a small town, catching various blue-collar types in the midst of busy workdays. House painters, furniture movers, postal workers, tow-truck drivers—all of them are seen bopping around with various Dunkin’ Donuts products in hand. Meanwhile, a singer on the soundtrack shouts, “Doing things is what I like to do!” The ad closes with a new slogan flashing on screen: “America Runs on Dunkin’.” (Click here to see the ad.)

Dunkin’ Donuts is spreading its wings. The chain is expanding nationwide and plans to triple in size within the next 10 years. According to a Dunkin’ press release, this new ad campaign “marks the most significant repositioning effort in the company’s 55-year history.” A big part of the goal here is to introduce the brand to Americans not yet familiar with it.

Having grown up in Massachusetts—home to Dunkin’ headquarters—I’m plenty familiar with the brand already. Just last week, I got a breakfast sandwich at the Dunkin’ (or, as we Massholes somewhat inexplicably call it, the “D&D”) around the corner from my mother’s house in Brookline. (By the way, that particular franchise is completely kosher. Seriously. No sausage on your breakfast sandwich—even if you ask nicely.)

To me, the iconic Dunkin’ campaign will always be the one in which that sad-sack fellow with the moustache says, “Time to make the donuts.” But donuts are no longer Dunkin’s bread and butter (or bread and lard, as the case may be). Coffee is by far the chain’s biggest seller now. According to Business Week, beverages account for 63 percent of Dunkin’ sales, while donuts make up only 17 percent. Which means that Dunkin’ is competing less with Krispy Kreme than with Starbucks.

Of course, it’s not exactly competing with Starbucks, either. The Starbucks consumer sees his latte as a gourmet indulgence; the Dunkin’ guy views his cuppa joe as necessary fuel. The brands’ relative price points reflect this, as do their store interiors. John Gilbert, Dunkin’ Donuts’ vice president of marketing, has been quoted as saying, “We’re not about music and WiFi and couches and fireplaces.” What they’re about is low prices, quick service, and unpretentious reliability.

So, how do you capture those qualities in an ad without creating an image so boring and unsexy that it turns off customers? The gold standard for blue-collar cool of late has been Target, which managed to transform itself from schlocky to hip on the strength of a clever ad campaign. I think the keys to Target’s success are twofold. 1) They choose interesting music (they’ve used songs from Devo, Cornershop, and Sir Mix-a-Lot); and 2) They shy away from showing actual Target stores. Taking us into a store, with its aisles of garbage cans and discount dry goods, would just remind us about the underlying schlockiness. Instead, Target recontextualizes the products it sells inside a colorful, bouncy world of the campaign’s own invention.

This flagship “Things I Like To Do” ad from the Dunkin’ campaign is pretty straightforward: It suggests that a Dunkin’ break helps average Americans power through their busy lives. But it follows Target’s lead in not showing an actual Dunkin’ franchise. And the music creates an arch sensibility, turning the spot into a sunny ode to caffeine addiction. (Sample lyric: “I’m slightly more productive now than previous because/ I’m slightly more efficient than I previously was.”) Nerd rockers (and native Massholes) They Might Be Giants provide the theme song here and contribute several other songs to the Dunkin’ campaign. The band is known for catchy hooks, quirky rhymes, and an often cloying sensibility. Sounds just right for a career in jingle writing!

Hill Holliday*, the ad agency behind the campaign, has been running a blog about the ads and what went into them. Here you can see a few other spots from the campaign. Each relies on an oddball They Might Be Giants tune and illustrates an everyday moment. The lyrics inject a bit of whimsy and knowingness into these familiar scenes, lifting the average Joe’s workaday existence into a funnier, cooler realm. Some sample lines from the tunes: “Get your 8-year-old out of the tree. He got up there quite a ways” (as we see a mom sip her Latte Lite and then hoist herself up into the branches); “The backs of my legs, sticking to the pleather” (as we watch people drinking Dunkin’ iced coffee in an effort to mitigate that post-beach cling to their car seats).

One Hill Holliday blog entry about the jingle from the flagship ad muses: “Doing things is what we like to do. Why do I think millions of people are about to have that line going through their heads on a regular basis?” Funny, I’ve always wondered how ad execs feel when they inflict some insipid catchphrase or jingle on us. I’m sure there’s pride, but is there also a modicum of guilt involved? I hope?

Grade: A. The ads are very watchable, and I think the campaign nails the brand image Dunkin’ is striving for. Down-to-earth, value-oriented, but still fun and just a tiny bit hip. As for that new slogan, America Runs on Dunkin’? Given the calorie counts on some of those donuts and flavored coffee items, it might be more accurate to go with America Waddles on Dunkin’. But I guess that doesn’t scan quite as well.

Correction, April 24, 2006: This piece originally misspelled the name of the ad agency Hill Holliday. (Return to the corrected sentence.)