But low prices and syrup flavors alone do not a hit make. For at least a certain slice of Dunkin’ customers, a sense of regional connection to the chain makes them willing to shell out on merch. Josh Gondelman, 36, a comedian and a producer of Desus and Mero, grew up in Massachusetts. He said that Dunkin’ “feels so regional if not hyperlocal, and I think there’s a pride in that.” He acknowledged it is “a very neat trick of a giant company to be like, ‘Hey, we are your local hometown spot,’” but he doesn’t let that cognitive dissonance weigh on him too heavily. He happily wears a Dunkin’ mask around Brooklyn, where he now lives, and enjoys the Dunkin’ sneakers, robe and sweatpants he also owns.
Alyssa Gerstner, 30, said that she bought herself a Dunkin’ robe after seeing one of Gondelman’s tweets about it. She likes Dunkin’s coffee okay, but found her robe to be a joyous treat in a tough year. She thinks that the chain’s popularity in New England is largely due to its no-frills approach. “I feel like the people of New England decided that Dunkin’ Donuts was going to be a part of their brand,” she said, and not necessarily the other way around, adding that locals sort of “latched on” to the chain. Indeed, Nielsen found that a striking 54 percent of adults in Manchester, New Hampshire had visited a Dunkin’ in the 30-day period leading up to the survey.
Wearing gear for a brand you like is an obvious way to telegraph loyalty and cultural identification. But what kind of message, exactly, are you sending when you put on Dunkin’ gear?
In a very basic way, it’s funny to see something you know and love from one context transposed to a radically different one. David Price, 28, an artist and illustrator in Boston, said “A Dunkin’ Donuts bathrobe is extremely funny—it absolutely does not need to exist in the world, but now that it does I really want it.”
Unlike the recent viral success of the postal service swag, which similarly hinged on the dissonance between pragmatic brand and luxurious expression, the Dunkin’ gear has no whiff of social or civic purpose; Dunkin’ is not a cause to be rallied behind. It’s tempting to call it ironic, but to Gondelman it’s not exactly that, either: “I don’t think it’s like, ‘Oh, isn’t it stupid that I’m wearing a Dunkin’ Donuts bathrobe,’” he said. To him, Dunkin’ claiming the space of private relaxation and luxury that is the bathrobe is just a bit cheeky, presented with a wink. That a coffee, donut, and bagel joint with a reasonable price point would enter your bathroom is novel.
It also raises some uneasy questions. Even though it’s silly and surprising, this merch does place a brand in increasingly, even outrageously, intimate spaces. It’s funny to have Dunkin’ bedding—but it also means you have paid to put what is effectively an advertisement in your bed.
People traditionally project identity outside of the domestic sphere, for a public audience. You wear a branded shirt to the bar, or stunt in a set of joggers on the subway. But, especially this year, with social media allowing people to perform identities from home, the domestic is not off limits for brands. Dunkin’ has seamlessly swooped in.
Maybe Dunkin’ is colonizing the next frontier of ad space, in our homes, blasting through a boundary that can never be repaired. Or maybe they are just having fun in a year when we really, really need it.
Either way, people are indeed having fun. Jill Francis, reflecting on her wedding day, said it was all so special. There was only one way that Dunkin’ could have made it better: “I was a little disappointed they didn’t have robes for the bridal party,” she said. “I absolutely would have bought them.”