Should I remember Al Jolson?
A compelling argument for brand alignment was made recently, however inadvertently, by Dunkin’ Donuts. Dunkin' Donuts’ Thai franchise launched an ad campaign for its new, black “Charcoal Donut.” Its TV commercials, posters and Facebook posts feature a woman in blackface makeup—an image that, particularly in the U.S., evokes uneasy associations with minstrel shows of the past.
Human Rights Watch sharply criticized the campaign, and an apology was issued in the U.S. by the company’s headquarters. Meanwhile, the Dunkin’ Donuts Thailand CEO, who said the franchise works independently of the U.S., continues to defend the ads, which feature the tag, "Break every rule of deliciousness."
It’s a classic enterprise branding quagmire: the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. Though the campaign has created no uproar in Thailand, it’s been cause for damage control on the part of Dunkin’ Donuts domestically, which includes “give people their dignity” and “treat everyone with respect” among its brand values.
Did Thailand not get the memo on the values thing? Did they openly defy those values? Or did they not perceive the ad as disrespectful, owing perhaps to cultural norms? Whatever the reason, one thing is for sure: the ad is misaligned with the brand essence. The controversy is a blow to the brand. And a blow to the brand is a blow to its reputation.
Dunkin’ Donuts will undoubtedly survive the storm. But the potential for snafus like this exists for any company with international presence. In the face of (sometimes vast) cultural differences, it’s critical for a brand to keep its international group aligned. The brand’s job is to minimize opportunities for messes made by right and left hands working at cross-purposes.