Jill Nelson

CMO, Dunkin’

A lot of people assume that marketing is creative advertising, but that’s just the final output. You need to be able to crunch numbers and use insights to fulfill customer needs.

One of Dunkin’ CMO Jill Nelson’s fondest memories of her time at Tuck was working with professor Paul Argenti on a beloved Tuck tradition—the Super Bowl Ad Review.

During the annual event, Argenti and co-host Kevin Lane Keller, the E.B. Osborn Professor of Marketing, rewatch some of the most interesting ads that aired and analyze the strategic decisions behind them. This year, one of the top-performing Super Bowl ads that Argenti and Keller discussed happened to be one that Nelson, a T’16, helped create.

It was definitely a full circle moment, says Nelson, who worked with actor-director Ben Affleck on the hidden-camera-style commercial which stars Affleck taking drive-through orders from unsuspecting customers at a Boston-area Dunkin’. The 30-second spot also includes a cameo from Affleck’s spouse and fellow Hollywood icon Jennifer Lopez who delivers the final line: Grab me a glazed.

Jill Nelson nd Ben Affleck standing outside of a Dunkin

The unscripted ad was directed by Affleck and filmed by his newly launched production company, Artists Equity. The partnership began after a series of tabloid photos featuring Affleck consuming Dunkin’ products went viral on social media. The company enlisted Affleck to promote their Dunkin’ Run value menu, but Nelson says they had no plans to purchase ad space until the film came together in mid-January, just three weeks before the Super Bowl.

The process of creating the ad was unconventional, recalls Nelson. I would get texts from Ben Affleck that said, ‘Okay, here’s an edit that I just made. What do you think?’ There was risk involved, but it worked because it’s so authentic. We would never do an ad with someone, even a well-known celebrity, who didn’t have an authentic relationship with our brand.

The critics agree that it was a strong Super Bowl debut for Dunkin’—the ad was rated fourth in the USA Today Ad Meter ranking. Perhaps most importantly, during the February ad review at Tuck, Argenti and Keller gave the commercial high marks as well.

Nelson says she always aspired to work for a consumer brand with a product she could see and touch and, in the case of Dunkin’, taste. After a short stint in public sector consulting at IBM, Nelson landed her first role with the company in 2011 as a business analyst. Since that time, she has regularly witnessed the connections and memories that Dunkin’ creates in people’s lives.

Someone will tell me how they used to go to Dunkin’ with their dad after soccer games or they would go every Sunday after church, she says. It’s a conversation starter for so many people and it’s rewarding to work for a company that creates those relationships with a brand.

Nelson’s first marketing role at Dunkin’ was as a pricing analyst. Both her direct manager and another more senior manager at the time were Tuck alumni and urged her to consider getting an MBA. Nelson hoped to continue her career at Dunkin’ but wanted to better understand the different functional areas of business. That goal made Tuck’s general management focus a natural fit.

On her first visit to campus, she remembers meeting Tuck marketing expert Praveen Kopalle, the Signal Companies’ Professor of Management, whose teaching and research interests happened to include retail pricing strategy. During her two years at Tuck, the relationships she built with several faculty were critical in shaping her MBA experience and her eventual return to Dunkin’. None had a greater influence than Bakala Professor of Strategy, Emeritus Richard D’Aveni, who invited then Dunkin’ CEO Nigel Travis to speak in one of his classes.

When professor D’Aveni heard that I had worked at Dunkin’, he offered me the time he had arranged for himself to meet with [CEO Nigel Travis], whom I had never met previously, recalls Nelson. It was a special opportunity and it helped me when I graduated from Tuck and reached back out to Dunkin’.

As it turned out, Nelson became chief of staff to the CEO soon after rejoining Dunkin’, a role she says provided broad exposure and the opportunity to contribute to different parts of the business.

I followed our CEO everywhere, Nelson says. If we went to Japan to meet with Baskin-Robbins licensees, I was there. If we were in New York filming an interview on CNBC after earnings, I went there too. It was an incredible experience which really helped me recognize how much I gravitated toward all the great work our marketing team was doing.

Nelson worked as chief of staff and later as director of corporate strategy before becoming vice president of Dunkin’ marketing and culinary in 2020. In that role, she was responsible for all of the company’s product development, innovation, and brand marketing. Now as CMO, Nelson says she loves being a part of the key decisions that help build the Dunkin’ brand.

She routinely draws on the fundamentals she learned at Tuck, citing corporate communication and strategic thinking as particularly influential. Nelson is also quick to correct misconceptions about what marketing is and who can be successful as a marketing leader.

A lot of people assume that marketing is creative advertising, but that’s just the final output, explains Nelson. You need to be able to crunch numbers and use insights to fulfill customer needs, inform how to position your product, how to price it, and how to know your audience better. Those are all skills that are more strategic in nature than creative.

As for what’s next at Dunkin’ and in the broader world of marketing, Nelson sees the potential for AI and machine learning to improve marketing efficiency and enhance the customer experience. In response to labor challenges, Dunkin’ recently tested AI service at the drive-through, but she says it’s too early to know whether that experiment will stick.

Ultimately, Nelson is most concerned about keeping Dunkin’ connected to a younger audience that is consuming more content and becoming savvier about the way they interact with advertising. She says influencer marketing and short-form video have become reliable ways to reach young people with shorter attention spans and less exposure to traditional media.

I like to say, I want us to be the first sip, Nelson relates. If you go from having munchkins as a kid and you have your first sip of coffee, I want Dunkin’ to own that moment.

This story originally appeared in print in the summer 2023 issue of Tuck Today magazine.

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