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Dunkin' Donuts-Starbucks: The New Cold War?

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Message Susan Benjamin

In the race between Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts for who makes the best brew, something disconcerting is happening. Dunkin Donuts is winning. DD doesn’t let this ditty slide: on the homepage of their Web site they say: “Dunkin' Donuts is America's largest retailer of coffee-by-the-cup, serving nearly 1 billion cups of brewed coffee each year.”

So, why disconcerting? No question, Starbucks is on many consumers’ hate list and I’ll probably sound pro-Starbucks which, in the interests of full disclosure, I am. But my loyalty to Starbucks has more to do with what it reflects about our culture than the actual taste of the coffee which critics claim tastes burnt. Personally, I like burnt. But I understand.

Of course, the two have plenty in common. Starbuck’s and Dunkin Donuts serve coffee and sugar-and-fat based food. Even their non-sugary options have enough cholesterol to give you heart disease just by inhaling their smell. Dunkin Donuts features what they call “Flat Bread sandwiches”: a nod and a wink to the urban professional who just won’t eat the fluffy stuff. All contain eggs and cheese, albeit two selections with reduced fat and yokeless-eggs. As for Starbucks: they feature the Power Protein Plate with cheddar cheese and an egg. Both have glassy storefronts, self-serve only, and language problems. They just can’t seem to call a coffee a coffee.

But even in those commonalities lurk definitive differences. Walk into DD and you see a line-up of espresso blends plus their basic de-cafe and caffeinated selection. Same for Starbucks except they emphasize their Shared Planet brand of coffee. According to their Web site, “Shared Planet” is:  “…our commitment to doing business in ways that are good to the earth and to each other.”  This includes “ethical sourcing” such as a partnership with Conservation International (CI) to help them adhere to “120 critical standards for coffee quality, environmental practices, social and economic expectations, and price transparency to farmers…[and] a third-party verifier to do the auditing.” 

They also refer to goals for the next decade or so that would make Ralph Nader grin (well, maybe not Nader… ). Among them: nearly doubling farmers’ loans from $12.5 to $20 million; offering farmers incentives to prevent deforestation; developing a recyclable cup; and deriving 50% of their company-owned stores from renewable sources.

Walk in the door at Dunkin Donuts and you see notices like: “Problem: Run Down. Solution: Fresh Ground.”  Their primary commitment is to “fresh brewed” and their semi-patriotic proclamation: “American Runs on Dunkin’.”  DD serves as a reminder that for many Americans caring for #1 is simply enough. As for the coffee cups: the small ones are made of cardboard which can breakdown in landfills eventually. To keep customers from getting their fingers singed, they place a second cup over the first one providing two cups for your recycling pleasure. The medium and large sizes are Styrofoam – so infamously bad, it’s banned from many family picnics. How long does it take for Styrofoam to biodegrade? I looked that question up and found opinions differ from 1 million-plus years to never.

Another difference comes to purpose. According to Taylor Clark, in his book “Starbucked” the company laboriously designed each shop to appear similar but still reflect the individuality of the community where it resides. The point was to create a “third place” where the public would linger when not at home or work. This concept consciously reflected the third place cafes of Europe where they serve as a gathering place for the community. Still, Dunkin holds true to their tagline “America runs on Dunkin’”. You run in and out, tables so small or the space so cramped, you don’t want to linger unless you’re a doughnuts- and-coffee cop.

Which brings me to a hunch about why Dunkin Donuts may be winning the coffee war. Starbucks carved its reputation as a high-priced elitist shop while Dunkin Donuts (a gazillion dollar corporation) belongs to the People. They reflect this in their language: Starbucks has sizes ranging from “grande”, which is Italian for “large”, to “vente” for “20”. Why jump from size to number, I’m not sure, but it resonates “upscale.”  Dunkin’ Donuts sticks to plain old American kitsch with such lines as “…you get what you want, when you want it. Because at DD you kin’ do it.” A marketing cliché followed by a mis-spelled word. Brilliant.

As for the décor: Starbucks is expensively muted and woody, with everything from luxuriously broad chairs to gas-burning fireplaces. DD explodes with bright, make that ‘brite’, oranges and pinks, cheap feel-good colors reminiscent of another American classic: Disneyland. DD is not about being part of the world but escaping from it.

Granted, the every-man’s angle is rooted in the company’s history. I grew up in Massachusetts, where the company was born, and frequented Dunkin Donuts back in the coffee-drinking, chain-smoking days of high school. Predictably you’d find two coffee-slugging, donut-crunching cops and workers from the nearby factory or construction site racing in for a coffee with cream, two sugars to-go. My mother, a liberal middle-class housewife, would never enter the joint. The glazed and chocolate smeared toppings were simply offensive.  Dunkin Donuts clings to these roots, claiming to be for blue collar workers, white collar workers and everyone in-between, on their Web site. So unlike you-know-who.

In the best of all worlds, we’d get our coffee from boutique shops owned by members of our local communities. The coffee would be flown in on vegetable fueled planes or the beans grown locally. The prices would compete with the old Maxwell House shops that littered every corner in many major cities decades ago - about 50-cents a cup – so everyone could afford it and, more important, know they could afford it. But we don’t.

Given this reality, we have a choice: revert to the environmentally and socially indifferent practices of the Cold War era or try for something else, albeit imperfect, that at least attempts to create a better future.

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Biography Communications expert, author, and entrepreneur Susan F. Benjamin is founder of Greater Voice Enterprises. Her short features and interviews with everyone from Hollywood celebrities to leading thinkers are aired online and on am/fm (more...)
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