Dunkies’. Honoring your true customer.

Before you read this, watch this. SNL aired a pretty genius spoof of ads for Dunkin’ Donuts showing their ‘real customer.’ Quick recap to those who don’t care to watch. Casey Affleck stars as a Boston local giving the camera crew his real Dunkin’ experience.

This piece was shared with me by a dozen different people on five different media. Why? Because it gets to a core truth. The Dunkin’ ads focus on people in buttoned down shirts, designer glasses, drinking their premium drinks. But that’s not the customers the brand grew up with. Dunkin’ locations multiplied in blue-collar towns across New England and the northeast. Long-time customers or brand observers have noticed the moves Dunkin’ has made to steal share from Starbucks and other premium chains.

This week Quizno’s announced their investment in a premium sandwich concept – Zeps. This is a clear move to chip off some share from other sandwich brands, but also a signal. Quizno’s sees opportunity in the premium space. Somewhere above Subway’s mass appeal and budget friendly menu, maybe above Jersey Mike’s. Similar to the move Dunkin’ Brands has made over the past decade.

There’s a big difference. Customers of Dunkin’ in the late 90’s had a firm grip on the brand and understood it. Stores were woven into communities (like mine). Quizno’s never achieved such a position involving loyalty or foundational understanding. They flirted with it briefly but were never able to solidify it. Adding a premium menu or an entire premium brand won’t confuse any of Quizno’s hard core customers, because there really aren’t any. Sorry.

And this is the challenge for brands trying to expand, and why most fail at doing so. A young brand has a loyal core of fans. People who visit more than average and bring new people into the restaurant. These customers come to the place and recognize others like themselves. They become a tribe united around the brand. A tribe might be based on a type of cuisine, type of music or decor, or neighborhood. Strong brands have this early on, and figure out how to grow the tribe without alienating the original customer.

Authenticity doesn’t apply to everyone. For example, discount brands don’t have tribes. Subway doesn’t have a tribe. They don’t attract people based on lifestyle. Subway attracts based on features. Which works for them, because they have scale. When Subway adds menu items, they do so with mass audience in mind. And they ensure alignment between new items and sales. What they do not do, is roll out items that will turn off or confuse their core audience. Or worse, signal that the place is no longer for them.

Dunkin’ has successfully navigated the addition of premium coffee items that better align with the Starbucks audience than their original customer tribe. They did this by continuing most of the original items that won them those early fans. They maintained tribal authenticity by honoring the original customs. Order a ‘coffee regular’ today, and you’ll get what you got in 1995. Or 1975.

Towards the end of the SNL piece, Affleck’s character has a verbal exchange with one of the new Dunkin’ customers. The new customer looks down his nose at Affleck, “Go back to Starbucks,” Affleck screams back. Implied, we want our brand back.

Is your brand experience easy to understand?

I visit a lot of restaurant concepts to find new trends and innovations. I always note is how easy it is for a new customer to understand what they are supposed to do to enjoy their visit. Especially their first visit. Blow that one, and there may not be a second. In our research into Millennial dining habits, 58% told us they base dining decisions on past experience. It is important to get it right early and often.


This is an issue on two levels. First, choosing the menu items and names that let people understand what they are choosing from and what it will taste like. Some concepts go all in on naming conventions that don’t always set expectations. Krystal calls its regular burgers Krystals. Probably fine given the presentation of the menu and focus on that primary items. But also on the menu are variations of hotdogs called Pups and Corn Pups.

Does everything on the menu make sense together? If you’re an Asian wok-based concept like Pei Wei, adding sushi is not a far leap for the customer. Less so at a southern chicken concept. That’s pretty simple. What about new items Buffalo Wild Wings has added? The brand has done great with a straightforward menu and formula of wings, sports and beer. Do burgers make sense there, or is the brand grasping for innovation. They’ve also added a pulled pork sandwich to their menu, even further afield. Raising Cane’s has been disciplined in keeping the menu extremely tight. Time will tell if they feel the need to expand the menu when location growth slows.

Don’t underestimate the importance of menu design. QSR and fast casual brands have the burden of communicating the flavor and experience at distance and often without much conversation. At Culver’s, the menu is much more expansive than a new guest might expect, making the first visit potentially overwhelming. Is the menu organized as simply as it can be? Are there flavor cues where needed? Is the menu divided intelligently, so it can be scanned.


This is sometimes out of your control, but a restaurant layout needs to welcome people. In casual dining, it’s important to have an area near a host’s stand for guests to gather and wait. But also to hear the music and see the sights inside the restaurant. No one likes to wait, but at least give them a chance to absorb the atmosphere and get excited to get to their seats. Texas Roadhouse does a great job with this.

In fast casual and especially QSR, give them an entry that allows them to comfortably view the menu. Even if a restaurant is as simple as Five Guys or Firehouse Subs, the first visit takes some orientation. Give people space to stand back and observe; don’t force them directly into the queue. Watch people’s first visit to a Qdoba and witness the awkward pauses, the questions, the confusion. Don’t position the menu at awkward angles that make it hard for people to read. A common mistake is posting the menu boards on the wall along the queue at chest height; the spacing makes it impossible to read.

When designing a standard footprint we maximize seating, kitchen equipment, safety. Make sure customer experience is included. Especially for new guests. How much does the layout give the guest a chance to understand the brand? Guests need to look at some of the food on other guests tables, see how they’re eating it, and what they’re combining.


Does your staff know their stuff? Do they help people understand? Are they trained to explain the concept and guide people towards favorite menu items? In a perfect world, the answers to all of these are yes. But reality is far from perfection. Even with the best menus and a flawless layout, some guests just won’t read or get it. Some will want to talk to staff and test them.

Find out what the most common questions are from guests. Set up training programs to give staff the help they need to perform at this level. Secret shop to ensure a high standard is being upheld. Reward staff living up to that standard with spot bonuses or other perks.

Staff trained in explaining the experience are trained in hospitality. Executing that well turns a confusing experience into a great one.

The customers or the brand. Who comes first?

More often than not, the answer is the latter. The needs of the brand and the company behind it drive the decisions. Adding something to the menu because the price dropped. Opening a location in a market just to add to the map. Having a presence on a social media channel because our competitor is there. Customers are often treated as an afterthought.

We who work on the inside of restaurant brands are focused on our business. Everything we see we apply to improving our performance. We analyze tiny details of competitors or new concepts. We obsess over commodity costs and changes to supply chain.

Customers don’t think about these things much. People aren’t rational decision makers. They make most decisions with emotion. Then they use logic to rationalize. Any decision can be better sold by making it meaningful to the customer. It’s important for restaurant brands to design that meaning into everything it does. Bolting on a marketing oriented reason to believe just feels fake. Consumers crave authenticity and will always sniff that out.

Put the customers first. Easily said. Not so easily achieved on an organizational level. Here are some ways to start shifting the internal approach to ‘customer first.’

Walk in their shoes

Especially in larger organizations, it is very easy to get caught up in the company culture. Endless meetings and conversations can convince us that the outside world thinks about our brand or our competitor in the same ways we do. Are they as focused on the change in hot sauce? To us, it may be a simple change in vendors, saving money and offering similar flavor. To them, it may have changed something fundamental about the experience.

Make yourself a customer. Go to the restaurants. Not as a marketer or as a ‘secret shopper’ but as a guest. Bring friends or family. Observe the experience. Experience it first-hand. Feel like you’ve mastered your own brand (you likely have!) go shop competitors. Try your top competitor. Try new concepts outside your category. Learn what is changing on the experience curve and people are reacting to. That seems extremely simple, and it is. Sometimes the simplest exercises yield the biggest insights.

Be a solution

Being a guest will help you understand how your guests use your brand. Yes, they’re coming in for a good meal and hospitality. But do they come in for comfort food? Is it a family treat? An efficient business lunch? Think about ways to optimize each of those experiences for the customer. If someone is coming in for a quick meal, what can you offer to make it a step faster or more added on as a carryout item? When you define the problem you’re solving for your guests, new products will be designed around them. And more appealing.

Respect customers’ taste

Another simple approach is to identify simple things that can be improved, and taking action. Have a lot of customers ordering entree’s without the dressing? Add that option to your menu. If people are upset about the change in hot sauce, give them an option. The reason the Coke Freestyle machine was so popular wasn’t because of it’s cool design (although that helped). People loved it because they could have exactly the flavor they wanted with their meal. That might mean that at a burger concept like Five Guys, they go with Coke Classic with cherry and raspberry; but at a Mexican meal, they choose Vanilla Coke with a touch of orange.

In our research, we’ve found that experience with your brand has the largest impact on future visits. If hospitality is important to your organization, make sure you are finding ways to make each guest feel like you are creating experiences just for them. Satisfy their emotional reaction to the experience, and let them rationalize their decisions moving forward.