Dunkin Donuts vs. Starbucks Democrats

The battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is sometimes boiled down to Starbucks vs. Dunkin Donuts Democrats. What can the candidates learn from the business world about these two political tribes?

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In the highly caffeinated contest for the Democratic presidential nomination there's a new shorthand to describe the differences between followers of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Obama supporters are called Starbucks Democrats, while Clinton is said to be the choice of those who prefer the coffee at Dunkin' Donuts. Of course, good politicians know the real story is more complicated than that, and so do good coffee sellers.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: In the coffee wars there are not a lot of crossover voters. Dunkin' Donuts found that out a few years ago when the company paid some of its customers to buy coffee at Starbucks, while paying the Starbucks customers to taste the brew at Dunkin'.

Mr. WILL KUSSELL (President, Dunkin' Donuts): We called that our tribe research. And what we were hoping to understand is, you know, what are the characteristics of our heavy users versus of our competitors.

HORSLEY: That's Dunkin' Donuts president Will Kussell. He says it's not income that separates the two tribes. Check out a Dunkin' Donuts parking lot and you're likely to see a BMW next to a pickup next to an SUV. The difference is how customers see themselves and how they see the two brands. Dunkin's advertising highlights its own down-to-earth appeal while poking fun at its more upscale rival.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Unidentified Woman #1: May I help you.

Unidentified Woman #2: Can I get a large?

Unidentified Woman #1: Oh, a D-A-T? It's a D-A-T.

Unidentified Woman #2: A large.

Unidentified Woman #1: A D-A-T.

Unidentified Woman #2: It's a large.

Mr. KUSSELL: Small, medium and large, that's it. We keep it very simple.

HORSLEY: Dunkin' customers generally don't want comfy couches or Wi-Fi access, and they're happy to accept a standard dash of cream and sugar administered by the help, while Starbucks customers see that as an affront to their individuality.

Both Dunkin' and Starbucks are selling more than just hot beverages just as candidates are selling more than just their programs.

Editor Bruce Newman of the Journal of Political Marketing says along with rational factors, like the cost of coffee or Hillary Clinton's health care plan, shoppers and voters are swayed by what their friends do and most importantly by emotion.

Mr. BRUCE NEWMAN (Journal of Political Marketing): Do I chose Barack over Hillary because he makes me feel proud, comfortable, excited about the country or do I choose a Hillary because I'm feeling more secure knowing that she's sitting the White House. No different than Ford or Chevrolet trying to market their cars to people on an emotional basis.

HORSLEY: Politicians are increasingly studying shopping habits in an effort to identify those voters who are most likely to be receptive to their messages. Alex Lundry is with the TargetPoint Research Firm, which worked on Mitt Romney's campaign. He says the kind of coffee you drink doesn't reveal your voting habits all by itself, but it is one piece of a larger puzzle.

Mr. ALEX LUNDRY (TargetPoint Research Firm): So, is that Starbucks drinker drinking Starbucks in a church's coffee shop? That makes a difference. Are they driving a hybrid or an SUV? When you add each of these up, what is the aggregate affect of all of these things on their political preferences?

HORSLEY: All this mixing of business and politics might strike some as less than edifying, as if an election were just one more day at the shopping mall. But Harvard business Professor John Quelch argues in his book "Greater Good," that politicians would be well advised to study commercial marketers.

Professor JOHN QUELCH (Business, Harvard University, Author, "Greater Good"): We are not nearly as engaged, I think, with political parties with individual political issues as a nation as we are with commercial brands. And the reason for that is that, quite frankly, the commercial brands have done a better job of attracting our attention and developing relationships with us.

HORSLEY: And Dunkin's Will Kussell adds, the political battle for hearts and minds is not so different from the marketing battle for wallets and coffee cups.

Mr. KUSSELL: It's always be loyal to your core but always try to reach out and bring new users into your brand. And I think probably the same holds true for a politician. They have a core group that naturally has an affinity for them but they've got to build that guiding coalition.

HORSLEY: That extends to both parties, by the way. Dunkin' Donuts is partly owned by Mitt Romney's old company, Main Capital, but it's also the coffee of choice on John McCain's charter jet.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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