Westward Dough: YouTube, California, and Dunkin’ Donuts

When the first Dunkin’ Donuts opened its doors in Quincy, Massachusetts, they did not have a YouTube marketing strategy. They didn’t need one because that single store did not expand to a full-fledged franchise for another five years. Also, it was 1950. Television itself was still a novelty for most, much like YouTube might be perceived now to some in 2014, nearly 64 years later.

Now, Dunkin’ Donuts is an international franchise with over 10 thousand shops (more than seven thousand in the United States alone), serving nearly three million customers per day, in 32 countries. Until recently, Dunkin’ Donuts boasted an impressive 36-state presence in America (enough to win a Presidential election in a landslide), yet California continued to prove elusive to the East Coast-based operation. (According to The Los Angeles Times, they closed nearly all of their West Coast branches by the end of the 1990s, with one last foray into the state’s capital, Sacramento, shuttering in 2002.)

The Frosting (aka Earned Media)

But, as of this past September, Dunkin’ Donuts is back in California. This time, the company is determined to expand to nearly 150 locations in Southern California with a possible expansion statewide if the early forays prove fruitful. By all indications, the launch has gone seamlessly, with the notoriously hard-to-please SoCal donut-eating connoisseurs embracing the first new opening in Santa Monica, as if it were the premiere of another Twilight film.

In fact, popular YouTuber iJustine (she has over 2 million subscribers) camped out overnight to be one of the first to cross the threshold at the grand opening of the Dunkin’ Donuts in Santa Monica.

Things got a bit crowded for the YouTuber, when lesser known, but still established personality Jenna Ezarik got much of the same footage (albeit from her own camera and angle) because she was next in line at the same store.

Both YouTubers are upfront about their lack of official sponsorship, proud to admit they camped out entirely of their own volition. Abundantly clear from both clips is the enthusiasm not just from the video hosts, but the surrounding campers and doughnut hounds, alert and cheering along with a healthy-sized crowd, with traditional media crews also afoot and barrelling through the swinging glass doors at five in the morning.

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The Dough (aka Paid Media)

If Dunkin’ Donuts didn’t have enough of a foothold out West until now, the brand has certainly found success in virtually every corner of the continental United States since that single store turned on its lights in 1950. In fact, their marketing and media has often proven influential, with some television spots from the 1980s now considered classics. (If you don’t remember the “Time to make the donuts” refrain, you probably didn’t grow up in the Northeast.)

So, it comes as no surprise that as we enter the second half of the second decade of the 21st Century, Dunkin’ Donuts has happily (and smartly) embraced YouTube to spread the gospel of its good donuts and especially its coffee. With competition always brewing with Starbucks, and the Seattle coffee giant’s own recent YouTube launch of the “Meet Me At Starbucks” campaign, the official Dunkin’ Donuts YouTube channel is constantly uploading new content.

Yet even what appears to be “paid” media on YouTube to promote the rollout of Dunkin’ Donuts’ second California bid, feels organic. In fact, no official content concerning the franchise’s big move back toward the Pacific can be found on the company’s YouTube channel. It would seem the company is banking on word-of-mouth, but utilizing the platform to both encourage traditional earned media and what would appear to be brand-bought content garnering millions of views on BuzzFeed.

Even a segment on The Ellen Show devoted to the Santa Monica opening (the show’s clips uploaded to YouTube take on another life of their own, well after the episode has aired) has grabbed the attention of the comedienne’s nearly 10 million subscribers.

The Last Drop

With so many independent donut shops, especially in Southern California, and a Starbucks or a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf battling for every last available inch of retail sidewalk, one would think Dunkin’ Donuts would be bolder than their darkest roast in terms of their California franchise rollout. Early indications, on YouTube especially, point toward a modern word-of-mouth strategy. Without social media at their disposal in the mid-1990s, perhaps the 64-year-old donut and coffee empire is playing it old school but with new media tools. It’s letting its fanbase build organically, one sip and one bite at a time as it makes its way up the Pacific coastline, determined this time to stay for good.

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