Shawna Upton was raised on Dunkin’.
“I grew up right outside Boston, and when I tell you they were everywhere — there are two on the same street in my hometown. So it was just what every parent, teacher, et cetera had in their hand every morning,” Upton, a digital director at an advocacy group, says. “The fun thing to do when we were kids was to walk to Dunkin’ for a Coolatta and a donut.”
In California, where I lived until I was 27, Dunkin’ is not really a thing. Contrary to Upton’s Boston suburb, the town where I grew up, Chico (population 94,529), does not even have a Dunkin’. This seems inconceivable if you’re from the Northeast. In New York City, where I live now, I’d say a good 60 percent of the born-and-bred New Englanders I know have a Dunkin’ cup surgically attached to their hands (at least from 8am to noon). It isn’t just that Dunkin’ is part of their coffee routine, though, it’s part of their identity.
The Dunkin’ fandom is big, enthusiastic, and totally unique. The only maybe comparable brand-specific food fandom is that surrounding Diet Coke — but it still doesn’t feel quite the same. Not even the West Coast’s beloved In-N-Out fandom comes close; West and East Coasters love to lob insults at each other over our preferred ground beef patties, but In-N-Out fans nevertheless do not typically consider the brand an extension of themselves. But Upton confirms that she considers her love of Dunkin’ “a personality trait,” which wasn’t an unusual answer among the Dunkin’ regulars I interviewed for this piece.
Dunkin’ love has deep intergenerational roots that merge with its approachable, all-are-welcome branding to create a company with a firm foothold in the New England identity. This fandom — ranging from grandparents whose cup of Dunkin’ was part of their morning routine on the way to their factory shift, to young, Gen-Z influencers like Charli D’Amelio whose trips to Dunkin’ are the point of even having a morning routine — is similarly approachable, enthusiastic, oftentimes fun, and notably unaggressive. Rarely do they disparage Dunkin’ competitors, though they’re used to other coffee drinkers belittling Dunkin’.
Originally called Open Kettle, Dunkin’ was founded in 1948 in Quincy, Massachusetts by William Rosenberg, the son of German-Jewish immigrants who owned a local grocery store. In 1950, the company was renamed Dunkin’ Donuts, and rebranded once again to Dunkin’ in 2019. While location and history — and a great product — are key aspects of Dunkin’s success, it’s really its fans that make the company special.
Nicole Carpenter, a reporter who lives in Boston but grew up in Connecticut, says she got her love of Dunkin’ in part from her dad. “My dad literally always had a Dunkin’ coffee. It was just ubiquitous. He would go out even on Christmas and in blizzards to get it,” she says. “I imagine it's similar for other folks? It's just everywhere, and always has been.”
Josh Gondelman, a New York-based comedian who grew up in the Boston suburbs, says he also grew up with a Dunkin’-loving dad. “My memory is that sometimes he'd go on his way to work because he worked in construction and they were open early when he was up,” he says. “There are, like, five in my pretty small hometown. There always seemed to be a bunch of old guys hanging out at them, especially early in the day.”
If a lot of the stories of Dunkin’ fans seem similarly viewed through an everyman lens, that isn’t a coincidence. Though Dunkin’ is ubiquitous up and down the Eastern Seaboard, the specific spots where the company decides to plop down a location is more strategic than it might seem. Nailya Ordabayeva, an associate professor of marketing at Boston College, says the particular neighborhoods Dunkin’ focuses on are key to its success. “Dunkin’ is a very much average American brand that tries to target and attract middle class, average Americans — hard-working, working class Americans. And their locations reflect that,” she says. “If you look at the locations of Dunkin’, they're much more likely to be located in less urban areas — a little more spread out across the geography in a certain state. Whereas Starbucks is much more likely to be located in the heart of the city, where they're more likely to get more affluent consumers.”
Dunkin’ is also cheap for what you get, which makes the brand even easier for people to love. A 2018 study found that perceived value — or, how much customers think they’re getting in return for what they’re paying — is the number one most important factor that contributes to its customers’ happiness and, by extension, to the company’s success. The cost factor came up again and again in my interviews with business experts and regular Dunkin’ fans alike.
Brighton, Massachusetts-based Laura Eastaugh lives a short walk away from the second-ever Dunkin’. She went viral in a video she appeared in last year, in which she repped Dunkin’ pride as she voted for Joe Biden at Fenway Park. “Dunkies is the drink of the working class. No fuss,” she tells me. “Not everybody can afford a $7 iced coffee.”
The data backs this up. According to Nielsen, Starbucks consumers have a median household income of $72,413, while Dunkin’ drinkers typically make about $63,825. This difference is part of its appeal: while Starbucks has a high-brow vibe that explicitly targets affluent customers, Dunkin’ fans often pride themselves on being part of a working class community with straightforward needs and unfussy taste. “The brand associations with Dunkin’ align really well with the values of the Puritan work ethic which is still prevalent in a lot of New England,” says Elizabeth Miller, a professor of marketing at University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Isenberg School of Business. “The idea of no frills, convenience, and helping Americans get to work seems to be consistent with the values of hard work, discipline, and frugality.”
A 2018 study conducted at Boston College (not peer-reviewed) found that this even extends to the language used by Dunkin’ and Starbucks employees. Starbucks branding and employee lingo explicitly uses coffee-related jargon that lends the company an exclusive air; in contrast, Dunkin’ employees kept it simple, using casual, single word greetings to welcome guests, with unassuming, straightforward menu item names.
Susan Fournier, the dean of Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, says Dunkin’ — which she says is sometimes called “DD” by loyalists — thrives in part because of its underdog brand image. “DD is simpler, more authentic than uppity Starbucks with its own lingo about coffee and its detailed preparation processes and sizes that have to be ordered in Italian,” she says. “DD has pink and orange colors! Rather mundane interiors to the stores. It is not pretentious and this authenticity is perfect for those who are not pretentious.”
Even the names of the different companies reflect this, notes the study, pointing out that Starbucks comes from Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick; the founders wanted a name that began with an “st” sound, as they’d heard advice that it sounds “powerful.” In contrast, Dunkin’ (originally “Dunkin’ Donuts”) drops the -ing, resulting in a more colloquial, everyday vibe from the get-go.
Dunkin’ “has that authentic connection with New England. And it's capitalized upon that, especially over the last 10 or so years,” says Danielle Brick, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of New Hampshire. The company has facilitated partnerships with local sports teams and players, most recently with the New England Patriots; when legendary Red Sox player David Ortiz retired in 2016, Dunkin’ commissioned a gigantic portrait of him made entirely out of donuts. But the brand has also done a good job of connecting with younger fans, Brick says. “They also have done a good job most recently in the fall partnering with Charli D'Amelio, who is from Connecticut,” she says. Whereas in the past the company may have focused on more traditional partnerships like the sports teams, Brick says they’re looking to branch out and appeal to younger consumers with the Charli connection.
Zachariah Porter is a TikTok influencer and huge Dunkin’ fan, who has collaborated with the brand in the past. He says many of his viral TikTok videos feature his love of Dunkin’. “I think a lot of their vocal adoration online comes from the fact that they are a huge brand that actually interacts with their people,” he says. “They are finding out what people like and what they want to try from their community.” In one of my favorite of his TikToks, Porter says: “The Dunkin’ drama is unbelievable. Look at this guy, tryna enter the line from that side of the street. Get behind, brother, we all want our caffeine!”
The biggest Dunkin’ influencer, however, is a (probably) accidental one: Ben Affleck. In his recent piece about the Affleck Renaissance in The Ringer, Gondelman notes that it was not his former relationship with the actress Ana de Armas (RIP BenAna) that has brought Affleck back to Good Will Hunting-level stardom so much as his complete and utter commitment to getting his Dunkin’ every day — even during a pandemic. “Dunkin’ as a brand harkens back to the Red Sox of the late 20th century: a scrappy, much-maligned underdog that is actually worth millions and millions of dollars. In other words: Ben Affleck,” writes Gondelman. “The alignment between his persona and the Dunkin’ brand is almost cosmic, and seeing them merge feels like witnessing a man at peace with himself.”
It takes a bit of cognitive dissonance to so closely align a gigantic brand with 12,871 locations and $287.4 million in revenue (as of 2019) with the working class. But Dunkin’ retains an uncomplicated, sincere brand and product that has resonated with its fans — not merely its drinkers, but its fans — for decades. And don’t get it twisted: I’m not a biased Dunkin’ fan. Again, I grew up on the West Coast, where Dunkin’ was basically just another Krispy Kreme in the local imagination.
But in an era of overly-considered millennial interiors, Instagram filters and FaceTune, personal brands, and outright political lies, authenticity is at a premium. Desperately searched for, rarely found, perhaps the authentic experience we were looking for was right in our backyard, at Dunkin’. Or, at least, an authentic-feeling experience. These days, that’s good enough for me.