In June, the restaurant chain IHOP caused a big to-do when it announced that it was changing its name to IHOb, in order to make clear to customers that it was not simply a breakfast joint. It was obviously a marketing stunt—the chain wanted to promote a new line of hamburgers—but it was nonetheless met with extensive and even semi-serious news coverage, all of which looked dumb, in the self-fulfilling way that much of our lives is dumb these days, when the company fessed up to the ruse and “changed” its name back to IHOP.
With this blip of nonsense still fresh, I was skeptical when I read the news that another breakfast chain, Dunkin’ Donuts, also would be changing its name, cutting itself down merely to Dunkin’. But this one appears to be the real deal. On Tuesday, in an official statement, the company explained its decision, using a particularly delectable bit of corporate babble that is more fun if you imagine it spoken with a Boston accent: “We are bringing the iconic name Dunkin’ to the forefront in a bold way that brings to life how we refill optimism with each cup and bring fun, joy and delight to our customers each and every day.” Dunkin’ will still be selling doughnuts, but the company now makes most of its money serving coffee and other drinks. Somewhere in advertising heaven, Fred the Baker weeps.
To most Dunkin’ customers, the change will hardly register—no one has used the full name in years. Depending on where you’re from or the circles you run in, it’s always been Dunkin’, or Dunkies, or Dunks. But, by officially dropping the “Donuts,” the company has put an end to a long-running mystery: despite living nearly my entire life in the Northeast, I have never seen a person dunk a doughnut into a cup of coffee, nor heard tell of anyone actually doing it. (Somewhere, a grizzled old man, in a wool cap with earflaps, clutching an Old-Fashioned, mutters his dissent.) But that mystery has only been replaced by another: Dunkin’ what? The company joins a list of brands with global reach whose names have been whittled down to complete meaninglessness. Weight Watchers just rebranded itself as WW. Jo-Ann Fabrics is now Joann.
Photograph by Emile Wamsteker / Bloomberg / Getty
You can hardly drive five miles in New England without hitting a Dunkin’, leading to the oft-repeated joke about giving directions up here—turn right at the first Dunkies you get to, then left after the second, and then go straight past the third. Although the company long ago expanded outside its New England stronghold (the first store opened seventy years ago, in Quincy, Massachusetts), it has remained a cultural institution and signifier, both for the people who live here and for those who like to mock the worst stereotypes about the people who live here: insufferable Massholes, Pats fans with lousy accents, dirtbags from Providence to Presque Isle. A few years ago, in a video short for “Saturday Night Live,” Casey Affleck inhabited that role, playing the so-called mayor of Dunkin’, a blowhard in a Carhartt coat and a Bruins cap who acts like he runs the place. “I come down to Dunkin’ every day,” he says. “Grab a cruller, have an extra large, three Parliaments, take a big dump. That’s kind of the routine.”
Of course, all kinds of people go to Dunkin’—and the routine it offers, more than its not-great coffee and less-great food, is its most important product. If it’s a lousy sign that we look to a giant corporation to serve as a cultural unifier, or that said corporation is one of the first things we think about when considering the modern landscape of a region—well, sure, but aren’t we all just trying to get through the day, with the help of a little caffeine and sugar? The company, in simplifying its name, may just be trying to market more easily a vaguely defined universe of products, or to better compete globally, but it also feels like a nod to colloquialism, and to the familiar. We recognize a Dunkin’ when we see one, no matter what the sign says. My toddler son, who is verbal but illiterate, and who, to my knowledge, and in my dearest hope, doesn’t know what the Internet is, will continue, each time we pull into a Dunkin’ parking lot, to recognize the pink-and-orange sign, and, in one of his still-rare complete sentences, say, “I want a doughnut.”