Doughnuts for everyone, on Fred Pitchman: Fred, the star of Dunkin' Donuts TV ads for 15 years, gets a sweet send-off today as the company gives away doughnuts at its 3,300 U.S. locations.

September 22, 1997|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

It's hard to imagine Fred the Baker brewin' up a cup of hazelnut decaf for the friendly neighborhood cop.

And so, because Dunkin' Donuts wants to change its image from "the best doughnut shop in America" to "America's neighborhood coffee shop," it is retiring the honest, hard-working Fred from television after a 15-year run as company spokesman.

In what even advertising executives agree is a deft marketing strategy, the company decided to "celebrate" Fred's retirement with a parade, television spots and a doughnut giveaway. Fred announced in TV commercials last week that he would be getting up one last time at 4 a.m. to bake up a nice fresh doughnut for all of his friends.

Mind you, it's just one doughnut. But it is free.

The company expects about 6 million people to go through Dunkin' Donuts' doors today to pick up free doughnuts. And if the company is lucky, they will buy a cup of coffee or a bagel or six more doughnuts as well.

But even more important, it is betting those customers will come back.

Dunkin' Donuts will try to prove today that giving away doughnuts and sacking a tired pitchman can be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

With the marketplace filling up with coffee and bagel shops such as Starbucks and Bruegger's Bagel Bakery, the company realized it was selling a product that was no longer trendy.

So it embarked on a plan to turn itself from "the best doughnut shop in America" to "America's neighborhood coffee shop," according to Edward Binder, vice president of marketing for Dunkin' Donuts.

Dunkin' Donuts has been redesigning its shops, bringing in a half-dozen flavored coffees, baking bagels and hoping to lure back all those people who haven't been in a Dunkin' Donuts shop since they left college in the 1970s.

But what to do with Fred? The company could have let him fade away or fired him. But instead, Dunkin' Donuts is making a big fuss.

"It's a good idea," said Jim Osterman, southeast editor of Adweek magazine. "You have this guy who is a nice little icon of American advertising. Instead of waking up and saying, 'Gosh, this guy's as old as dust,' and dumping him, the company is turning the retirement into an asset."

Binder said the company actually surveyed customers, asking how they would feel about Fred's departure. They told the company it would be OK, said Binder, but "treat him like a time-honored friend."

The strategy -- which included commercials in which Fred discussed retirement with Bob Dole, Mary Lou Retton, Sugar Ray Leonard and Larry Bird, and a parade through Boston -- has apparently worked.

Michael Vale, the actor who has played Fred for 15 years, has appeared on the national morning television talk shows.

Newspapers, which weren't much interested in writing about Dunkin' Donuts same-store sales growth three months ago, are producing stories about the doughnut giveaway and Fred's retirement.

The company has spent about 10 percent of its $40 million annual advertising budget during the past month, promoting Fred's retirement, according to Binder. Today's free doughnut promotion will cost the company about $3.2 million, he said.

Anyway, Fred isn't even retiring. He'll be the first official "Dunkin' Diplomat" appearing as a company mascot or representative at charitable functions. Binder even suggested that Fred might reappear in commercials to "check up" on his successors.

Advertising executives said the marketing strategy is uncomplicated and effective. Any money spent on advertising Fred's retirement and in giveaways will be quickly made up if customers come in and like what they see.

"It is a cute idea," said Herbert Fried, chairman of W. B. Doner & Co. "It will certainly create traffic. They will recoup the cost. Think of the publicity they will get from it."

What may be trickiest is not the marketing but the actual execution of the giveaway, said Osterman.

If a customer drives by and sees a line down the block or can't get a favorite doughnut, or the store runs out of coffee, the customer probably isn't going to come back.

"The operations have got to be seamless," said Osterman. And there are 3,300 locations in the United States.

But while Fred is leaving, the company does want to keep its down-home, honest image to differentiate itself from Starbucks, said Ron Berger, who created the idea for Fred 15 years ago and developed the marketing strategy to retire him.

"Dunkin' Donuts is an American brand. In the parking lot, there are Mercedes parked next to pickups next to vans," said Berger, now with the advertising firm of Messner, Vetere, Berger, McNamee, Schmetterer in New York.

Dunkin' Donuts wants to remain unpretentious.

"It is a place to go that doesn't charge you $3.25 for a latte," Berger said. "You get an honest cup of coffee for a reasonable price."

To some degree, the change seems already to have worked. While most fast-food franchises are posting negative same-store sales or small gains, Dunkin' Donuts has had double-digit monthly same-store sales increases during the past six months.

If the marketing strategy and the execution are successful, those sales will continue.

"It is fun and harmless," Osterman said. "And it is, after all, just a doughnut."

Veteran Pitchmen

With Fred the baker's "retirement" from Dunkin' Donuts, here's a list of some other long-standing fictional pitchmen and products they hawked or companies they worked for.

Madge -- Palmolive dish detergent

Margaret Hamilton -- Maxwell House coffee

Maytag repair man -- Maytag appliances

Ronald McDonald -- McDonald's

Mikey -- Life ceral

Mrs. Olson -- Folger's coffee

Clara "Where's the beef" Peller -- Wendy's

Rosey -- Bounty paper towels

Juan Valdez -- Colombian coffee

Mr. Whipple -- Charmin bath tissue

Pub Date: 9/22/97

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