The Art of the Rebrand: A Lesson from Dunkin’

 Contributed by Bryce Ward

Rebrands are one of the most universally intriguing aspects of marketing, especially when household-name businesses decide to do it. Undergoing a drastic rebrand is like suddenly shaving off your beard or dying your hair pink—it never goes unnoticed and it often evokes some less than agreeable reactions. So when a well-known business decides to alter their identity, and tries to do it without upsetting their consumer base, grab some popcorn and a comfy chair.

The most common, and relatively safe, type of rebrand is a logo design change. These types of rebrands almost always face some degree of push-back from consumers, but it usually does not last long. The type of rebrand that really makes waves comes when a business changes their name. It is one thing to alter appearance, but to change one’s name is to change one’s identity–and that is not an easy thing to pull off.

We saw this play out not long ago when pancake-powerhouse IHOP toyed with the idea of changing their name to IHOB (International House of Burgers). Before the widespread and passionate backlash from consumers got too out of hand, IHOP played a “psych” card and attributed the name change to a marketing ploy for raising awareness of their new menu change. Whether or not the name-change successfully increased their burger sales, we don’t know, but it did give everyone an important lesson: name-changes are fickle things and should be considered with great caution.

The latest household name to implement a name-change is Dunkin’ Donuts—now known as “Dunkin’”—and they took a much different approach than IHOP. Instead of using their name-change as a publicity stunt, Dunkin’ opted for a more discreet approach, framing it more as a natural evolution of their brand than as a drastic change in their brand. Only time will tell if the subtle shift in identity will pay off for Dunkin’, but so far it seems to be going smoothly.

According to an interview with CEO David Hoffmann, Dunkin’ dropped the “Donuts” from their name for a couple of reasons: 1) On the whole, Americans are becoming more health-conscious, and donuts (unfortunately) don’t exactly fit well within that trend; plus, the profit margin on donuts is not nearly as high as drinks; and 2) Dunkin’ views their name-change not as a change in identity but more so as a clarification of their identity; in other words, they believe they have been a beverage-focused business for years, so removing the “Donuts” from their name simply makes sense.

If the Dunkin’ rebrand turns out to be successful, it will not be because of reason number one–it will be because of reason number two. Changing a brand’s identity in accordance with market trends (e.g., healthier eating) is a dangerous game. Even if pancake consumption starts to suddenly decline across the nation, IHOP would be amiss to turn that “P” upside down again. Going from the House of Pancakes to the House of Burgers is a change in identity—and a major one at that—but going from Dunkin’ Donuts to Dunkin’ is not nearly as consequential; plus, if donuts really don’t make up a considerable portion of Dunkin’s profits or identity, then changing their name to reflect that reality may turn out to be advantageous down the line.

If you should take away one lesson from the Dunkin’ rebrand it should be this: A brand’s name should accurately encapsulate its identity (who they are, what they offer, etc.), so if you find that your brand’s identity has deviated away its name then a change may in fact be in order. How you enact that change is up to you. You can take the under-the-radar approach of Dunkin’, the confrontational approach of IHOP, or maybe somewhere in-between—but what matters most is that the change is necessary, necessary, that is, within the scope of your brand’s identity, not merely its profits.