Branding Case Study: The Prize of Emotional Connection

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Starbucks vs. Dunkin Donuts

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I’ve always been a Starbucks addict.  The brand has been part of my daily routine for about 15 years and I bet I’ve been the first ring at 5:30am more than 100x’s in over 4 locations in 3 states.  In short, I’d consider myself a loyalist.  The routine stopped in March 2014 when I moved to NJ to acquire LM Foods and there just isn’t one between Pt. A (Gym) and Pt B (company).  The experience has let me learn a few things as my Venti Black Dark Roast went bye bye…..

I’ve become what marketers call an “experimenter.”  Open to new experiences.  A coffee Swinger if you will.  In general, Dunkin Donuts probably gets 75% of my coffee $’s, but that is probably falling to 1/3 fast.  For me, they are not Starbucks for a variety of reasons:

  • They simply haven’t figured out the “Third Place Concept” and the vibe that goes with relaxation.  I think I’ve taken advantage of the Starbucks leather seats <10% of the time.  But the vibe, even if I only feel it for 90 seconds matters.  Life is hectic, and escapism matters.  
  • Dunkin can’t seem to understand that selling 2 day old bagels is not smart.  And they make this mistake often, and when you tweet them about it?  Black hole, no response. Why bother having a Social presence if you fail to engage?  
  • Dunkin is one of the great franchises in America.  But you simply never know what kind of experience you will get when your greeted by your Dunkinista (is that a word?). When I’m one of the first customers showing up when its still dark outside, and am on trip #30, shouldn’t you know who am?  

There’s a funny thing that happens when a Brand does not earn an EMOTIONAL connection with its consumers:  They start to wander.Yesterday, while driving from the gym on my way to work, I see 7-11 in the corner of my eye.  I decide to pull in and give their coffee a shot vs. my normal stop at DD.  It exceeded my (low) expectations.

  • Self serve bar, clean, plenty of choices but not overwhelming.
  • Decent coffee, I’d rate = to or better than DD.  Not Starbucks but good.
  • When checking out two things hit me.  Large size was $2.15.  DD? $2.70.
  • Then the cashier told me I get a free muffin with that coffee, they are “right over there, a few varieties to choose from.”

Eyebrows raise.  The computer in my head starts calculating the 7-11 experience vs DD.  And WHY have I not been coming here?  Save money, get SIGNIFICANTLY more value?

I know I’ve spent a fortune at Starbucks.  But the math and back in forth in the brain like yesterday morning has never happened.

Starbucks could raise the price 7% a year and (and have) and it never mattered.

A brand that works their ass off to understand what they are all about, then obsess to continually deliver (better yet over-deliver) against that expectation will always be worth more than brands that do not.

Branding is not complicated.  Earning Loyalty, while not easy is not complicated either. 

Dunkin does plenty of things well.  Everyday, without fail, they consistently place a 12″ receipt in my hand, with plenty of promo codes, 800#s, etc.  The messaging is consistent and probably valuable as they try to earn my loyalty through promotion.

But really all I want and need is a fresh bagel, a response to some feedback, a look in the eye and a general feeling that I’m not just another number.

Call it Emotional Hustling.  Caring.  It doesn’t cost a thing.  Unless you decide not to do it…… then the costs could be your very own survival.  

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  1. Starbucks, as a brand, offers consistency, variety, trained baristas, and a little bit of luxury, and importantly, given that my head starts pounding by 9am if I haven’t mainlined caffeine, ubiquity. This is my perception of the brand, as I was first introduced to their fufu drinks by a future boss, an existing Starbucks addict.
    Dunkin Donuts cannot win my brand loyalty because I live out West and they are not on every corner as the “Bucks” is. Even if they were, DD isn’t luxurious at all. Have you seen who makes their lattes? Namely, a machine. But also the same person that squirts out the sugar dough.
    As my work schedule has changed and now am a parent, quickness is becoming important to me. Second in line to the importance of me getting my morning drug fix. So I often find myself making my own caffeine moonshine in my not luxurious kitchen.
    Yet, I’m often (oh, 4 times a week) tempted to hit the local Starbucks. Because I know what to expect.
    As a fufu caffeine addict, in need of efficiency and a little bit of lux, Starbucks dominates Dunkin. Although, out West, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Peet’s Coffee, and increasingly, Dutch Bros, get me to perform caffeine infidelity.
    And then, Starbucks goes and comes out with the Chestnut Praline latte holiday drink, and I’m back.

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