Insights From a Successful Marketer

an interview with
John Costello President, Global Marketing & Innovation, Dunkin Brands

After defecting to the client side, former Renegade planner Tad Kittredge told me what he loved about being on that side of the fence, “I finally feel like I have all the marketing levers at my fingertips and now, its just a matter of pulling the right ones at the right time.”  I haven’t spoken to Tad in a while so I can’t be sure if he has found the right formula but one gentleman who has, without a doubt, is John Costello.  Currently President, Global Marketing & Innovation at Dunkin Brands, Costello has a long track record as a successful marketer with stints at Home Depot, Sears and PepsiCo among others.

Not surprisingly, Costello recently received the Officers Award from The CMO Club for his outstanding work at Dunkin and I had the pleasure of interviewing him before The CMO Awards event.  In this highly substantive discussion, Costello provides a clear blueprint for any student of the business, offering insights on strategy, TV advertising, measurement, mobile, building loyalty and much much more.  Its a bit longer than many of my interviews so grab a large cup of America’s Favorite Coffee and have at it.

Drew: Marketing seems to be getting increasingly complex in terms of ways to spend and ways to monitor. Has it gotten more complex for you (for Dunkin’) and if so, how are you dealing with that complexity?

John:  Marketing has become more complex as technology and consumer engagement continues to evolve rapidly.  A key factor in Dunkin Brands’ success has been the close partnership between our franchisees and the company.  This has enabled us to stay close to our customers and respond to the changing marketplace better than ever before. Our team has done a good job of balancing what has worked in the past with innovation.  We conduct very sophisticated ROI analysis on our marketing plans, but we also encourage our teams to try new things, such as our digital billboard in Times Square for Dunkin’ Donuts or our viral soft-serve video on Facebook with Baskin-Robbins.  On the product side, we’ve implemented a strategy called “Familiar with a Twist” that has combined old favorites like Dunkin’ Donuts’ original blend coffee and our breakfast wraps, along with innovative and fun new products like our turkey sausage breakfast sandwich and the glazed donut breakfast sandwich.

Drew: Pundits like to say that TV ads are dead yet every retail/fast food exec I talk to swears that TV is still the most cost effective way to drive store traffic. Are you still finding TV to be effective at driving traffic for Dunkin’ Donuts?  

John: Through the great work of our team and advertising agencies, traditional marketing tools like TV, out-of-home and in point-of- purchase displays still work very effectively for Dunkin’. However, consumer engagement is changing as consumers spend more time with their computers, tablets and smart phones and are using these multiple devices at the same time. Thus, while traditional marketing remains very important for Dunkin’,  our investments in digital, social, mobile and loyalty marketing are increasing even more rapidly.

All of these investments are driven by five key principles:  First, most great ideas flow from the consumer. Whether it’s B-to-B or B-to-C, there’s really no substitute for truly understanding your customers’ pain points and how you can address them. Second, building brand differentiation is the most important thing a marketer can focus on because it answers the fundamental question: why should consumers choose your brand over all their other choices? Third, building a strong team both inside and outside your organization is imperative. It’s not just about the people who report to you, but also about your peers within the organization and the key agencies and technology partners with whom you work. Fourth, tactics matter. While developing the right strategy is important, executing that strategy to the highest standards can really make a difference. And fifth, agility. The environment in which we compete is changing more rapidly than ever before, so it’s important to be agile and adapt your plans as needed. The bottom line is that, while the way consumers learn about brands, consume information, and decide where to buy brands has changed over years, they are still looking for better solutions to their everyday challenges. All five of these principles flow from the core principle of understanding your consumers’ unmet needs and meeting them better than anybody else.

Drew:  How important is mobile marketing to Dunkin’ in your overall marketing mix?  

John: For a company like Dunkin’ Donuts, mobile and marketing go hand-in-hand. The surge in mobile usage, coupled with the busy, on-the-go Dunkin’ guest, creates a very compelling business case for us. By launching the Dunkin’ App and offering mobile payments, we created an entirely new level of speed and convenience that further distinguishes our brand to current and new customers throughout the country.

While the majority of our mobile efforts are focused on adding value for our consumers through the Dunkin’ App, we do believe that it’s critical to optimize for mobile across all of our digital touch points. With consumers increasingly reliant on their mobile devices for information, it’s important that our website, online advertising, e-mails, social media communications and more, all be optimized for the mobile audience. Each month, we also host a number of fun promotions and programs for our consumers on mobile-friendly social media platforms. You may have seen our recent integration with ESPN’s Monday Night Countdown, where Dunkin’ Donuts has a billboard ad during the program that was created with Vine.  The billboard ad promotes a #DunkinReplay Vine, which re-creates a marquee play from the first half of each week’s Monday Night Football game with Dunkin’ food and beverages. The goal of creating the content and sharing it across Twitter and Vine allows Dunkin’ Donuts to engage with users who enjoy watching Monday Night Football while leveraging a mobile device to connect with others about the game.

Dunkin’ Donuts also recently partnered with Zynga’s Running With Friends for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, where we are providing players with in-game tips for perfecting their game, plus Dunkin’ coffee boosts to help keep them running past their friends and up the leaderboards. Guests can also earn 500 free gems to use during game play for checking in to a local Dunkin’ Donuts, further emphasizing how Dunkin’ keeps them running both in their everyday lives and during game play.

Overall, we are very pleased with the response to our mobile initiatives. The success of these programs supports the importance of taking a 360 degree approach and thinking thoughtfully about the best platforms that will help us to engage with Dunkin’ Donuts guests. The future of mobile for us is to continue putting Dunkin’ in everyone’s hands. We see a lot of potential for mobile to be an extension of the Dunkin’ Donuts experience. The Dunkin’ App has been very popular with our guests and we see a strong opportunity with mobile when we roll out our DD Perks loyalty initiative nationally in early 2014.

Drew: New products seem to be a really important part of QSR marketing yet in many cases product development does not report into the CMO. How does new product development work at Dunkin? Does it report into you? If not, how do you make sure you have the right “news” to market?

John: Our world class culinary team does report directly to me and is made up of chefs, food scientists, and operations folks.  They work very closely with our brand marketing group, supply chain, operations, and franchisee groups in a fast-moving, highly-collaborative, and highly-disciplined way. For example, we do sophisticated concept and sensory testing on our new products, and our culinary team has really embraced that as a key tool to help them get great new products to market even faster. I meet with the culinary team at least twice a month to review and taste our new products under development for the next 18 months.

Drew: At the start of my career, I worked on the Century 21 Real Estate account and became very familiar with the challenges of working with franchisees. How does the fact that Dunkin Donut shops are almost 100% franchisee owned impact your overall marketing strategy? How do you keep them all happy? 

John: Our franchisees are the core of our business at Dunkin’ Brands and we value their opinions and business decisions. I view our franchisees on both Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin- Robbins as a secret weapon in our product development and marketing efforts. These franchisees understand their markets in the U.S. and around the world better than anyone. They are a constant source of ideas, and we regularly review our product development plans with them to get their input.

Drew: How do you stay close to your customers with so many points of distribution (17,000 including Baskin-Robbins) in so many countries?

John: Because brand-building tactics and cultures may differ from country to country, people sometimes believe the principles may also differ. We operate in many different countries, in many different cultures, but we find the principle of understanding what our consumers want remains a constant around the world. We really try to adopt a global mindset that searches for the best ideas. It’s important to understand both the differences and the commonalities of countries around the world in order to remain close to our customers. For example, we sell a shredded pork donut in China right alongside a Boston Kreme donut, both of which are very popular. Green tea ice cream is popular in China, but so is French Vanilla ice cream.

We conduct extensive market research on key trends and get great feedback from our local teams and franchisees and business partners.  It’s also very important to visit local markets. I was in Europe earlier this year and will be rerunning to India and Indonesia next month.   Social media is another great way to stay in touch with customers. We understand that our guests like to use social media to interact with us, whether it be complimenting their favorite local shop’s crew members or telling us about their excitement for our pumpkin menu to return. We try to engage with our loyal fans as much as possible through these constantly growing channels in an effort to humanize our brand.

Drew: Consumers have lots of choices when it comes to coffee and donuts. What kinds of things are you trying to do to build loyalty?

John: The passion for Dunkin’ Donuts is unmatched and we believe the key to our continued success has been listening to our customers and evolving to meet their changing needs.  Providing great food and beverages at a good value, in a fast, friendly and convenient environment is the best way to build loyalty. We’re also planning to expand our enhanced DD Perks national loyalty program later this year. We believe that a customer-centric approach and ongoing commitment to evolving with our guests is why people have been coming to Dunkin’ Donuts for more than 60 years.

Drew: Do you agree with that notion that marketing is everything and everything is marketing and if so how have you extended the boundaries of your job beyond the normal purview of the CMO?

John:  I believe that everything that touches the consumers drives the success of your brand.  It’s not just advertising.  It’s the products you offer, the guest experience in the store, how we handle customer feedback and the stories about Dunkin’ in the media.  A key part of our success has been a strong cross-functional team culture involving our franchises and internal groups within Dunkin’ like Marketing, Culinary/Innovation, Operations, HR, IT, Corporate Communications, etc..  We may different points of view on various issues, but after we discuss things, we move forward as one team.

This touches back to something that I mentioned earlier in our interview. I also believe that there’s really no substitute for truly understanding your customers’ pain points and how you can address them. This mindset keeps me inspired as I lead my team. I also believe this is a common theme across the Dunkin’ Brands leadership team, which allows for us extend the scope of our roles and promote a highly collaborative, cross-functional work environment from the top down. Coming together to take a 360 look at the entire customer experience cultivates a culture of innovation and has resulted in a number of powerful successes. Like any organization, there will always be the occasional road block, but I’ve worked hard to hire positive, proactive individuals who are strong communicators and adopt a solutions-oriented approach. Our industry is incredibly fast-paced and ever-changing, so we can’t let road blocks slow us down. Leading by example and encouraging people and teams to take initiative, has been a powerful recipe for success.

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