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.