That’s me in the Polaroid instant photo with actor Michael Vale, better known as Fred the Baker, or the guy who used to utter “Time to make the donuts.”  Mr. Vale was at the Dunkin’ Donuts National Convention at Disney World in 1996 to grace franchisee and employee fans like me with a photo opportunity.

Mr. Vale had been portraying Fred the Baker for 14 years by the time we had our brief encounter.  Much had changed for Dunkin’ Donuts in that time. 

Competition heated up.  Starbucks grew from 33 stores in 1988 when Howard Schultz bought the company to 165 in 1992 when it went public to 1,015 in 1996.  In 1995 Wendy’s International purchased Tim Horton’s, a donut and coffee chain that was beating Dunkin’ handily in the Canadian market, and threatened to expand that chain into the U.S..  Krispy Kreme expanded beyond its Southeast roots, opening its first New York store in 1996.

Company ownership changed.  Allied Lyons bought Dunkin’ Donuts in 1990.  In addition to gaining Baskin-Robbins as a sister company, Dunkin’ management now had to take Allied’s desire for return on investment into account.

Health consciousness surged.  The 1980s and 1990s marked the appearance of several diet programs (The Beverly Hills Diet, Jenny Craig, Optifast, The Zone Diet) and the explosive growth of others (Weight Watchers, Atkins).

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Dunkin’ management wanted to make the business more attractive to franchisees and more profitable.

It was clear that Dunkin’ would need new products and a new approach given the external forces above that were bearing down on the company.  Dunkin’ shifted its emphasis to coffee, which was less labor intensive and more profitable than donuts.  We also launched Dunkin’ Bagels, Coffee Coolattas, and combination stores where Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins partnered in the same retail space.

What does all this have to do with Fred?  Well, as the guy who made the donuts, he represented our past but not our future.

As the changes were occurring, a close observer could see the shift already in the commercials he did.

In the 1980s Dunkin’s commercials focused on doughnuts (like this Fred classic) and how Dunkin’ made them fresh daily in contrast to supermarkets’ stale offerings (like this ad).  Supermarkets were Dunkin’s major competition at the time.

By the 1990s, Fred was serving coffee in some commercials.

Ultimately though, we needed a fresh start.  After research showed that our customers would allow us to move beyond Fred if we treated him well, we threw him a huge retirement bash complete with a parade in Boston and a free donut day for customers.

Every brand has external forces exerting pressure and willing it to evolve.  As the steward of your brand, you need to track these changes and evolve the brand to take advantage of them.  Done well, brand evolution can position your brand as a market leader.

Ignoring changes in your market and business environment is the ostrich approach and can kill your brand.  Look what it did to the brand that helped produce my photo with Fred.

Polaroid concentrated on its iconic instant camera too long – first in the face of one-hour film processing at retail outlets and then as digital cameras appeared.  The company filed for bankruptcy in October 2001 and sold its assets, including the right to the Polaroid name.  Polaroid exists today as a holding company.

An American icon, now a shadow of its former self.

No brand is immune.  What can you do to help your brand stay relevant?

  • Get out of the office.  Talk to your customers.  Visit competitors’ brick and mortar locations.  Attend trade shows and conferences.
  • Be aware of consumer trends.  Think about how they may influence your brand’s perception and usage.
  • Know what your competition is doing.  Anticipate how a competitor’s new product launch may affect you…or better yet, launch a forward-looking product that changes the game in your favor.
  • Follow regulatory changes in your industry.
  • Look at other industries for innovation ideas. 

In short, keep your eyes, ears and mind open.

I cherish that old photo with Mr. Vale, and remember the excitement of getting to meet him.

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