Companies are rebranding with intentionally vague names. Dunkin Donuts is the latest

Dunkin’ Donuts, the self-proclaimed “#1 retailer of donuts in America,” is distancing itself from the delicious, sugary pastry for which it is named. As of January 1, 2019, Dunkin’ Donuts will ditch the name it has used since 1950 and officially rebrand to the shortened “Dunkin’,” the company said on Tuesday.

Why? Dunkin’ Donuts describes this change as one part of its “multi-faceted blueprint for growth,” which also involves revamped stores featuring doughnuts displayed in glass cases (instead of metal baskets behind the cashier), digital ordering kiosks, and tap systems for cold drinks, like you’d see in a bar. Its pink and orange color scheme — a frankly chic power clash — will remain.

For brands and college freshman alike, there’s no easier way to mark an image overhaul than by taking on a new name. Dunkin’ Donuts is one of a few brands, including WW (formerly Weight Watchers) and Joann (formerly Jo-Ann Fabrics), that have recently changed their names into something vaguer. By dissociating from one specific kind of product or area of focus, they can either push a new message or communicate to customers that they sell a wide range of items — all the better to grow and grow, per the demands of capitalism.

The case for obfuscating what you sell

It’s not that hard to justify Dunkin’ Donuts’ name change. The company’s slogan is “America runs on Dunkin.’” Lots of customers, especially in its native New England, already call it “Dunkies” or “Dunkin.” Coffee is its main business, not glazed treats and their jelly-filled ilk: It declared itself a “beverage company” in 2013, and today drinks make up 60 percent of its sales, according to the New York Times.

However, the alteration is part of a long tradition of big companies making their names more opaque in order to make brand extensions easier. In 2011, Starbucks removed the words “Starbucks Coffee” from the logo on its cups because, then-CEO Howard Schultz said at the time, “It’s possible we’ll have other products with our name on it and no coffee in it.” Weight Watchers just changed its name to “WW,” because in our body-positive, wellness-focused culture, it didn’t want to be so closely associated with dieting. This summer, Jo-Ann Fabrics became just “Joann,” no hyphen.

“Part of the reason Joann dropped the ‘Fabrics’ from its name? To teach potential customers (and remind old ones) that the store is much more than just fabric,” reported Adweek.

IHOP, meanwhile, attempted a marketing prank and claimed it had renamed itself the International House of Burgers (to promote its new burger recipe).

No doubt Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t want to limit itself — on a branding, if not practical, level — to doughnuts. Reduced to Dunkin’, a world of possibilities open up. What are you dunking? Could be anything!

This is also happening at a time when every company under the sun wants to be a “lifestyle brand,” which can involve selling a more comprehensive range of products or pushing a message of “shared values” with customers. And if a brand wants license to overtake every aspect of shoppers’ lives, it shouldn’t define itself by a single product category.

Dunkin’ Donuts. Manhattan. 2011. Logo intact.
Ramin Talaie/Getty Images

Dunkin’ Donuts’s name change may not be a big deal at all

To understand the potential backlash to Dunkin’ Donuts’s rebrand, I asked some of the New England members of Vox’s team how they feel about it. (Founded in Quincy, Massachusetts, Dunkin’ Donuts is extremely popular in the region.) While there are no doubt fans who are currently shaken by the change, this group agreed that they do not care very much.

“I think it’s clear the name is ALREADY Dunkie’s. But this has sent me into an existential crisis about what part of speech Dunkin’ is. Sure, it’s part of a proper noun, but is it an adjective describing the donuts? A verb? A gerund? Why is this bothering me? Bring back fruit Coolattas.” —Meredith Haggerty, deputy editor for The Goods, from Massachusetts

“So basically the deal is ‘Dunkin’ Donuts’ is just becoming ‘Dunkin’’? Okay. I mean, what kind of nerd calls it ‘Dunkin’ Donuts’ anyway? This does not bother me at all. What bothers me is that their pistachio coffee flavor is SEASONAL. You can’t just DECIDE that pistachio is a summer flavor!!!!” —Rebecca Jennings, culture writer for The Goods, from Vermont

“Do I think the name change is dumb? Yes. Grammatically, without doughnuts, what are we dunking? But I have been calling Dunkin’ Donuts ‘Dunkin’’ for all of my adult life. This truly changes nothing for me. Dunkin’ loyalty runs through my veins. I’ve been there twice today. I stand by them.” —Lexie Schapitl, social media manager for Vox, from New Jersey (which is not New England, no)

“My knee-jerk response to the Dunkies news was: I hate it, I fear change, all institutions I once loved and currently tolerate should stay the same forever and always, amen, Go Sox. But now I’ve kind of mellowed out? To be sure, I still think it’s an irritating and semi-desperate-looking ploy, but maybe it’s good for us to get a fresh coat of paint every now and then.” —Alanna Okun, deputy editor for The Goods, from Massachusetts

Adds a friend of mine from the Boston suburbs: “I don’t have strong feelings. I would like them to bring back their Chips Ahoy donut.”

It’s entirely possible that Dunkin’ Donuts lives and dies by its products, not by its name. Now, if it goes full lifestyle brand and starts selling bedding and home furnishings, it might have gone too far.

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