Tony Weisman, the outgoing chief marketing officer of Dunkin’, has made it through a headline-grabbing rebrand, a push into influencer marketing and a multitude of fun stunts. But behind the irreverent brand work, he exits confident in one truth: many are Americans struggling to make ends meet, so value advertising has never been more important.
Weisman’s presentation at the recent ANA Masters of Marketing conference made it clear he had had a busy year. He’d dipped his toe into plant-based product marketing for the first time, rolled out a refreshed restaurant design and memorably dropped the ‘Donuts’ from the brand name after nearly 70 years.
As he regaled how Dunkin’ had seen its best sales growth since 2013 and best store traffic since 2015, he paced across the stage wearing a pair of limited-edition Saucony X Dunkin’ sneakers, the orange and pink faintly ludicrous against the dark suits of the conference.
But among the memes and jokes wrapped up in Dunkin’s bright branding and campaign efforts, Weisman issued a stark reminder: Americans have not all had the same experience since the economic recovery. This, he said, is what is driving value in the QSR business.
“Here we are at the Rosen Shingle Creek [hotel], drinking Perrier and typing on our $1,000 devices, while 44% of Americans could not put $400 together if they had to,” he told The Drum later that day.
“That's staggering. Forget your politics – forget what's going on with the Trump, what's going on with social upheaval in this country – and remember there a huge number of Americans who are starving, struggling, figuring out whether to pay their gas bill this week or eat. We're on the side of these folks. For them, a place like Dunkin' ... is how they get by.”
This has led to what Weisman calls a “value war” across the restaurant business, forcing his team to think competitively about value advertising. Because while Dunkin’s influencer campaigns could be sending social impressions through the roof, and its rebrand could be winning awards in the south of France, the consumer with $5 in their bank account will still go to McDonald’s if the coffee there is cheaper.
It means working in marketing for Dunkin’ – or any QSR brand – means constantly working in costs and margins, said Weisman, despite what the madcap creative output of Burger King and co may tell you.
It also means it’s becoming “hard to recruit” for in-house marketers – those who are able to “fight every single minute of every day for every transaction, and also build a brand at the same time”.
“Everyone in our industry talks about price all the time,” he explained. “That's the number one thing we do: value advertising. I'm up on stage presenting a lot of fun shit – happy ads and documentaries – but 99% of our media [focus] is on value.
“It is a huge challenge, and for a lot of us in the industry, it's frustrating. It's not what we all came to do. None of us wanted to figure out the next two for two, mix and match, value menu ... it gets a little repetitive. But, if you're good at it, it makes a real difference to traffic.”
Goodbye to the 'no BS' marketer
The honestly of Weisman’s comments became clear just two weeks later when Dunkin’ announced he would be leaving the business on 1 December.
In a post on LinkedIn he said he was “proud of what we accomplished over the past two-plus years, including our rebranding to Dunkin’, introducing new menu items like the Beyond Sausage Sandwich, relaunching and doubling our espresso business, transitioning from foam to paper cups and bringing in new talent and agencies to modernize the brand.”
He has committed to helping the company appoint a successor, the brand said in a statement, while his team will report to Dunkin’s chief executive, Dave Hoffmann, in the interim period.
It will remain to be seen if his team will take up the plans he shared at the ANA conference: namely to increase influencer spend, move further away from local marketing and experiment with TikTok.
It will also remain to be seen if they retain the candid culture he nailed into place, one that halted spend on a Times Square billboard “that was costing us a fortune” and told the chief financial officer he didn’t want the analytics team “grading my papers”.
At the very least, the marketer will be remembered for what the chief marketing officer of Eastern Bank called his “no BS attitude”.
“We had been a culture that had tended to whitewash,” recalled Weisman. “There was always good news and spin. And I said, all I want to hear about is what we missed – I know what worked. I pivoted the culture to be rigorous about what's not working – where we failed, where we made a bad decision.
“It’s only when you take that to the franchisees that you get their credibility.”