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Strategy, Structure, People and Process: The Key for success in the HF&B Industry

The companies we work for and the experiences we have define our perspective and help shape our approach as we continue the journey through our profession.

I spent the first 15 years of my career in marketing for a world class hospitality and tourism brand. It was a sweet ride, having the opportunity to market roller coaster and family fun in a chocolate-themed amusement park. The Hershey brand has been around for more than 100 years, yet manages to continue to be relevant and engage with their customers. This is where I quickly learned the importance of branding. From introducing new multi-million-dollar attractions to creating events, I had the opportunity to help the brand continue to evolve and strengthen throughout the years. This of course happened with a large team consisting of a variety of experts. The experience was unforgettable, but when a friend in the industry told me there was a donut franchise looking to launch a national brand, my interest was piqued.

Back in 2016, I went to lunch with the founder and then CEO of Duck Donuts, Russ DiGilio. Russ shared how Duck Donuts started in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 2007. He would vacation in the beach town of Duck with his family each year, and as an entrepreneur by trade, he saw an opportunity when he realized there were no donuts to enjoy on the island like the ones he remembered enjoying on the boardwalks growing up. And the idea for Duck Donuts was hatched – to serve vacationers warm, delicious and made-to-order donuts.

Fast forward to 2011, there were four locations throughout the island. Duck Donuts created a cult-like following, so much that vacationers began demanding for the opportunity to open a location in their hometown. From there, the franchising journey began.

Those who knew the brand, loved it. But there was still so much room and opportunity to increase brand awareness. A marketer’s dream! Russ admitted that marketing was not his strength, but he knew he needed to build a marketing team to succeed in this new venture of franchising his unique donut concept. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a brand that is known for its exceptional product and superior customer service and make it a household name throughout the country.

When I started at Duck Donuts five years ago, there were 22 locations open primarily on the East Coast, and a handful of corporate employees. The marketing efforts had been homegrown, and we needed to start at the foundation – what IS Duck Donuts? Who is our core audience? Why do they love us? What does Duck Donuts look like, and sound like? First, we set the foundation of the brand – cleaned up the logo, focused on one key duck, determined the brand assets to consistently use. I quickly noticed that we had beautiful, photogenic donuts, but our advertising at the time consisted mostly of illustrated donuts and an illustrated duck.

So how did we move forward?

Strategy, structure, people, process is my approach and now that I had a good of idea of what we needed to accomplish, I knew there was no way I was going to be able to pull this off on my own. Luckily, I had the ability to quickly grow a well-rounded, integrated marketing team consisting of creative design, social, marketing and public relations.

Together, we quickly evolved the brand and created a more sophisticated, cohesive look while still holding true to our roots. After the foundation of the brand was built, we focused on getting the message out and engaging with our guests – we devised a comprehensive social media strategy, created a new website, redesigned the instore marketing materials, launched ongoing public relations efforts and more.

As a franchise business, we are responsible for generating awareness on a national level for our brand, and to also provide the tools and resources for the franchisees to be successful and profitable on a local level. So, the next opportunity was to create a system to support the growing group of franchisees as well as creating a national seasonal promotions calendar which introduced limited-time offers and new products throughout the year. These limited-time offers and new products play an important role in increasing customer frequency and give our loyal guests an exciting new reason to visit our shops.

Branding isn’t just about the look of the company as seen through its advertising. And in our case, we needed to evolve our in-shop experience. The in-shop experience didn’t align with what our brand was quickly becoming known for. Duck Donuts is a break from the everyday routine, a vacation for your taste buds, a family-friendly experience where we engage with our guests from the moment you walk through the door. We had to deliver the same experience in shop as we were through our marketing. This required a well thought out upgrade to our shop design including the evolution of light fixtures, flooring, color palette and the general choice for décor. In addition, we flipped our toppings tables, so guests were able to engage with our team members while they watched their donuts being topped, dipped and drizzled right before their eyes. We were now delivering on the expectation of our guests that we were setting before they ever entered our doors.

After the foundation of the brand was built, we focused on getting the message out and engaging with our guests

Now that we had our external and internal marketing efforts aligned, it was time to focus on providing a seamless digital user experience for our guests. With this came the strategic planning to first launch an online ordering platform, followed by the release of our Duck Donuts Rewards App. While we focus on our unique in-shop experience, we also want to cater to those on the go, which is exactly what these platforms have allowed us to do, and have become instrumental to our success as we navigated through the pandemic. In less than two years, we have gained nearly 200,000 rewards app members.

Our goal for our rewards program is to increase customer frequency, drive consumer behaviors and continue to grow brand awareness. It has already provided us with strong consumer-driven data that gives us a better insight into our target audiences, allowing us to best meet the needs of our loyal guests.

Through the years, we have continued to understand more about our customers and their behaviors. We know that Duck Donuts owns special occasions and holidays. We hold a special place with our guests, and they love to celebrate with us just as much as we enjoy being a part of their special occasion. We continue to maximize this with our themed donut offerings and marketing position. Not every donut brand gets to be a part of weddings, baby gender reveal parties, 16th birthday parties and Valentine’s Day.

Duck Donuts continues to grow throughout the country and internationally. We open in new markets nearly every month. While our brand awareness continues to strengthen, we are far from a national household name – YET! We have comparatively few locations than our competitors and our marketing dollars only go so far. Therefore, we need something that will stick out in the minds of our customers and to keep Duck Donuts top of mind. One of my favorite marketing gurus is Seth Godin. And he advocates for something he refers to as a “purple cow” —something so unusual that it cannot help but to stand out in your mind and apart from the competition. Finding a purple cow can help smaller brands, like us, more effectively compete with much larger competitors that have a stronger footprint and larger marketing budgets. Of course, our differentiator is our duck. So, we continue to find ways to maximize our loveable duck mascot as well as “speak ducklish,” something only our brand is proud to say we can do.

I feel lucky to of had the opportunity to work for brands at opposite ends of the established spectrum. But whether the brand has been a household name and around for over 100 years, or just now hitting 100 locations, the same lessons hold true. (View table).

Now at the helm of the company as CEO, I cannot wait to continue to watch Duck Donuts soar as our brand continues to grow and evolve.

A half dozen lessons I have learned along the way:

1. Know your customer – who are they, and why do they love you

2. Build a strong foundation – the brand essentials – what does the brand look like, sound like and what are you channels for communication?

3. Customer feedback, research and data are crucial to all decisions

4. Be willing to adapt. Change is inevitable, growth is optional.

5. “What got you here, won’t get you there,” by Marshall Goldsmith. This statement is true even with branding.

6. Maximize your strengths and own what you do well, don’t try to be something that you aren’t, and don’t try to appease everyone.


By Betsy Hamm

CEO at Duck Donuts. Innovative leader with proven ability to identify consumer insights and develop new concepts and products that delivers profitable growth.

Instagram: @duckdonuts

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