3 Vital Marketing Lessons From the World’s Most Offensive Doughnut Shop

image of Voodoo Doughnuts sign

The line, even on the bitterest winter nights, extends out the door and down the block.

The neighborhood could charitably be described as “gritty” — known for marijuana dispensaries, tattoo parlors, and bars. (And those are the legal businesses.)

The walls are Pepto-Bismol pink, graced with a black velvet painting of a stern-looking Pam Grier. The place smells like … well, like a doughnut shop — that delicious yet faintly disgusting scent of industrial fryers.

The menu on the wall is illegibly tiny (even for 20-somethings on glaucoma medication), but everyone just pulls it up on their phone anyway. They take cash and only cash, and the cute tattooed employees at the cash register are friendly, if not necessarily efficient.

They’ve taken something ordinary (you might even call it a bit boring) and turned it into an enduring craze.

And yet, everything about the place turns off 95 percent of their potential customers.

Yes, Voodoo Doughnuts has arrived in Denver.

The adjective most writers use for it is “legendary,” followed quickly by “funky” and “indulgent.” (I’m not sure why “insane” doesn’t make more appearances, frankly.)

They sold nearly 200,000 doughnuts before they officially opened, fiddling with their high-altitude recipes and opening at irregular hours during their “soft opening.”

It’s inconvenient, the lines can be absurdly long (you’ll wait up to two hours on a Saturday night, much of that time outside in the polar-vortex cold), and at the end of the day … they’re just doughnuts.

When Anthony Bourdain visited the original Voodoo in Portland with Chuck Palahniuk, he said of one of their signature items (the maple-bacon bar):

Only late-era Elvis on medication would eat this.

And yet … it’s the kind of place Anthony Bourdain takes Chuck Palahniuk when they’re in the mood for doughnuts.

Voodoo is doing some things very right. And even if your customers look a little different from the pierced-and-tattooed crowd that graces Voodoo, every business can benefit from their core marketing strategy.

Voodoo keeps their eyes on three things:

1. Be memorable

Voodoo’s signature doughnut is shaped like a voodoo doll with a little pretzel-stick stake through its heart. They have a number of doughnuts on the menu that you can’t order without cursing.

You can get a doughnut with Cap’n Crunch cereal on top. Or Tang. Or bacon. They even used to make a doughnut with Nyquil, until the FDA made them stop.

(They did discontinue the Jägermeister doughnut as being too disgusting for any human being to eat.)

Do they taste better than other doughnuts? If you’ve been pining for bacon or breakfast cereal on your doughnuts, I guess so. Otherwise, they’re a lot like everyone else’s doughnuts: delicious for two bites, and then you start to hate yourself.

But if you go to Voodoo once, you want to talk about it. It makes for a great story that their customers love to tell.

2. Know your customer

Voodoo founders Kenneth “Cat Daddy” Pogson and Tres Shannon have a snarky, grungy ethos that attracts customers who think like they do.

When they try something new, they can consistently make the right call for their customers, because there is an unmistakable Voodoo “vibe.” Opening a store next to a historic adult movie theater? Thumbs up. Opening one next to a Restoration Hardware? Not even close.

This doesn’t just work for Denver and Portland hipsters. When you truly get your audience, you’ll be able to craft offerings that delight them, whether they’re monied Manhattan mavens or pious Peoria parents.

3. Don’t worry about the ones who aren’t your customer

If you’re still fretting over unsubscribes or nervous because a commenter was offended by the word “mofo” in your bio, let Voodoo be your inspiration.

Part of being memorable is knowing who you don’t serve.

It’s not (necessarily) about being as offensive as your imagination can inspire. It’s about writing off the people who aren’t right for you and never will be.

If you’re in an overcrowded market and are having trouble standing out, think about what you can offer that would be genuinely memorable, yes. Maybe there are some untried intersections in your topic — some fresh ways you can remix the tried and true.

But also remember: the answer to that question may lie in who you chase away.

How about you?

Have you ever tried an edgy, bold, or even potentially (to some) offensive marketing position? How did it work out? Let us know in the comments …

Flickr Creative Commons image by Kenny Louie.

About the author

Sonia Simone


Sonia Simone is co-founder and Chief Content Officer of Copyblogger Media. Get more from Sonia on Twitter and .

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Comments

  1. I live a few blocks from the voodoo donuts in Denver and I must say whatever they are doing is working. I actually haven’t even been yet because every time I go buy the line is like a 30 minute wait and I refuse to wait that long for a donut…

    Not a bad problem to have though from the business side of it!

  2. Hi Sonia,

    Different is good! I like The Voodoo Donuts idea. If someone is giving you a really bad time you might what to see if they have a donut for it. Is this located in Boulder?

    I have not tried a bold or edgy marketing position as of yet, but yes, I am working on it. After reading all your post on Copybloggers and taking classes with Jon Morrow I am getting braver.

    As I say different is good, we have to find the guts and just do it!
    Thanks for sharing about the donut place here in the Denver area and it is a great example of making something STICK and being contagious.
    Debbie

  3. These doughnuts are feeding a hunger that isn’t about food at all (duh) and I think that’s the most important key to their counter-cultural success. I love this post, Sonia. It kicked any of my own unnecessary caution out the door because I won’t (I cannot) forget it. This post has set me free!

  4. There is nothing like the Rice Crispy’s sprinkled over the peanut butter doughnut. This is my weekend market addiction.

  5. Age-old wisdom, but eternally refreshing.

    I have to say, as a Content Strategist, it’s point #3 that I find the most vital, notably because it’s where many brands and businesses fail to deliver. Many clients are interested in targeting, research-intensive segmentation, and routing their messages through these guideposts, but as soon as messaging begins to neglect the broader public, who they still see as POTENTIAL customers (though they likely never will be), the cowardice sets in.

    I would love to get a world where brands embrace the boldness in knowing exactly who they’re speaking to.

    • Agree — it is really hard for businesses of all sizes to be brave enough to do this. Which can be great, because for those who are, the competition dwindles to nearly nothing.

    • I agree Peter. One scent of judgement and it’s tail between the legs and a lunge into mediocrity.
      I had a client say, “someone told me this was cheesy, so I am going to stop.” Whoa, who cares about this “someone.” There are a million+ someones out there that will love you for that same thing.
      Content marketing, brand personality, product offering – be you and be unique.
      So many sweet points in this article. I wanted to high five someone. YES, that is exactly what I am talking about.

    • Yes I’d have to agree, it’s the third point that resonates most for me. It takes brave leap but Voodoo are clearly doing it well!

  6. Great article. I must confess I couldn’t focus because now I want to drve and get a voodoo donut:)

  7. Well, that has given me a lot to think about. It’s quite amazing how inventive people are with these fabulous, edgy concepts – who would have thought to create voodoo donuts? Brilliant! Great article :-)

  8. After years of advocating for this very approach, as successfully executed by Voodoo Donuts and many others, it’s important to understand one key point if you’d like to see your organization take a similar tack:

    It only flows DOWN. It never, ever, ever flows up. Ever.

    If the owner (or CEO or Board of Directors) believes in distinctive voicing, positioning, authenticity, empowerment and taking some definite risks, it can work really well. If not, there is NOTHING you can do to change that.

  9. Hey Sonia,

    Voodoo doughnuts looks like a cool successful story :)

    I’d like to expand regarding your question – about a potentially offensive position in marketing.

    On the one hand, there is kind of “business ethics” that says to be kind in general, to be helpful to the ones you like, and ignorant to those you don’t. Which means to some extent to ignore all the BS that happens around.

    In other words, it may be the best strategy to create your own neat net/village/tribe even if there are lot of BS trash right beside you.

    On the other hand, one may feel a pure righteous desire to clean out/improve the space in the web at least in his/her niche. And it may be even not a part of the village building strategy at all.

    It ‘s all fine, but AFAIK criticizing rarely leads to a business success simply because it is unlikely anyone would want to have a business with someone who criticize their potential or actual customer/partner?

    And if one starts nailing down some ideas/bad guys (scammers or not ethical entrepreneurs) by criticizing them publicly, he/she is likely to be labeled as a hater, outsider, a jealous person.

    Perhaps, one may criticize the ideas/bad guys very gently in public. Or what is met more often, is to simply ignore anything connected with them. That’s how most entrepreneurs work – focus on positive things. And only in intimate inner circles one can say what he/she really thinks.

    Such ignorant position of the most authorities allows professional scammers (I am talking about internet marketing first of all) flourish. They build syndicates of peers and fool poor naive silly starting wonna-be entrepreneurs from all around.

    To resume, I’d like to ask a question please.

    Do you think that a successful entrepreneur, unless he/she is going to build a marginal tribe, should play safe and steer away from trying to be memorable by righteous criticizing?

    In other words, do you thing that being positive (and in some cases ignorant) is much more reliable way to succeed building your ‘village’ if you don’t want your village to be isolated and ignorant by others?

    P.S.: Claiming to be honest with your ‘villagers’ and not telling them as much truth as possible (and even add something to it) is not much honest. But it is what seems to work now almost everywhere in business. And to some extent it is called storytelling (which replaces consistent and weighted honesty).

    P.P.S.: I’ve probably written too much for one comment, but it’s interesting to see anyone’s feedback on it.

    • Criticism is indeed a tricky one.

      I think it can work if you have a genuinely solid foundation of what you recommend, not just what you criticize.

      But you also have to be ruthlessly honest with yourself, that you’re truly criticizing behavior and not personalities. Otherwise, from my observations, it just degenerates into childish nonsense that ends up hurting your business.

  10. Bahaha! “The menu on the wall is illegibly tiny (even for 20-somethings on glaucoma medication.”

    Wow. I’ve been reading Copyblogger for years and that might just be my favorite line ever. I snort-laughed in the middle of a quiet office.

    Thanks Sonia.

    Also I have a doughnut sitting on my desk right now. And “delicious for two bites, and then you start to hate yourself” is pretty spot on.

    Great post.

  11. Sonia – I love what you’ve written. Voodoo Doughnuts is the perfect embodiment of “get your work out there – somebody’s gonna’ love it!”

    I’m not a spring chicken (57, never thought I’d make it this far), but I and many of my contemporaries crave more edginess in their life, more contrariness to get the conversations started.

    I want more unexpected, I want more just-short-of-blasphemy, more clash in my clash. And you’re absolutely correct, we can’t get hogtied over ones who aren’t aligned with, or don’t get what we say and do.

    When we let this happen it muffles who we are, what we believe, how we can affect our world.

    But, having said this, everyone has a right to be heard. We can’t refuse to hear those other voices – we’ll miss opportunities.

    And after all, no one gets their views from thin air. Most independent thinking is informed by our connections to everyone else.

    Sorry for waxing philosophical.

    Be different, be unexpected, but still – be nice (mostly). And copyblogger does indeed rock. My admiration to you all. Peace.

  12. Darren DeMatas :

    Sonia – I like the mofo reference ;)

  13. I loved number 2 “Know your customer”. I feel this is the foundation to all business. Thanks!

  14. I’m from Canada, and we take our donuts very seriously. Tim Hortons is a national phenomenon – you find it on almost every street corner. I’m not familiar with Voodoo, but I’ve thought long and hard about Tim Hortons’ marketing tactics. If you are using a donut business as a benchmark for best practices, arguably the #1 takeaway is the importance of coffee. Donuts are so much tastier with a cuppa Joe. And as we all know, coffee has seriously addictive properties. You can’t help but want to come back for more. Similarly, if you want to ramp up your marketing effort and realize success, you need a hook; you need to be offering something so important, so meaningful and so alluring that it actually nurtures a sense of addiction.

  15. I’ve been a professional comedian for 30 years and I serve a clientele in Burbank, CA as a comedy teacher. This article is so fitting for any comedian; any artist for that matter. If you are going to be true to you, you cannot worry about running off people who don’t like what you’re saying.

    I use this in business as well. When I started content marketing, I used to fret over the unsubscribes, then I realized that those people aren’t for me and this world is filled with others who like what I am saying and the free comedy writing tips I offer with the edge that I present. If you don’t like it, go somewehere else.

    Great post Sonia!

  16. VooDoo serves vegan donuts, which is a big draw for anyone who is vegan. Both my young adult kids attend college in Denver and live off Colfax (it’s not that bad, but then again I grew up in the projects).

    Yeah, the lines were long but service was great, the donuts delicious, and my kids could have a vegan dessert.

    • And I think that works well because a significant number of their core customers are vegan, so it’s synergistic.

      If only they could make a paleo doughnut …

  17. Loved this article, and the mofo reference :p

    I once received the complaint I used the word “dude” too often in my post. He actually seemed to like the post, and he admitted to using the word himself in everyday life. But apparently, to use the word in writing is childish and “translates to dumbed down”.

    I explained I mostly learned English from watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a kid, and he should feel lucky I manage to repress the cowabunga’s.

    People complain about the silliest stuff sometimes. Just focus on those who do like what you have to say.

  18. This article strikes a big chord with me on two fronts:
    1) I love donuts. Because…donuts.

    2) I’ve been trying to look at what I do right and what I do wrong. This is surprisingly difficult. And frustrating. But like every other person on the Internet I look at other people with huge #s of FB fans and whatnot and consider, “Where did I zig where they zagged?”

    I think this article nails at least one of my missteps. I think I’ve been too afraid of offending people and have been a bit too tame in my writing. I also don’t think I’ve put enough of “me” in there. So much so that I had to put my photo in my sidebar because readers frequently thought I was a “sweet old grandmotherly type.” Ouch.

    So there it is – I’m a cowardly writer and I need a little more voodoo (and possibly Tang) in my work.

  19. I think this type of marketing works as long as you don’t grow too fast. Look at what happened to Krispy Kreme. There were lines for blocks to get their fresh off the fryer line donuts. But then they expanded everywhere almost overnight. Within a few months, the lines shortened and then were gone. The uniqueness was over. Stores were soon closed, and the whole phenomenon became a distant memory. If there was a Voodoo on every corner, the same thing would happen.

    • I don’t think there’s enough of a market for a Voodoo on every corner, and you’re right, if they become ordinary, it loses all the magic.

      (Visualizing some pretty weird boxes of doughnuts being sold in Safeway.)

      Krispy Kreme had a much less distinct brand, but much broader base. I think you’re right, if they had stayed “special” I think it would have worked for longer. But as they are today, there’s nothing that really pulls you in there or makes it remarkable.

  20. Cool. I will be in Boulder next week and will have to make a trip to Denver to eat some donuts!

  21. They should open a UK branch, they’d make a killing!

  22. I couldn’t agree more with your marketing lesson takeaways.

    On reading the article the first time I was a bit unsettled by your third point – “Don’t worry about the ones who aren’t your customer”. I am often left with the feeling that most businesses don’t really understand the level of engagement or resonance their messaging and marketing have with their target customers. And so felt that ignoring them (customers who unsubscribe) on the basis of thinking that they are not your target market would be a mistake.

    Upon re-reading it, I understand that you are basing the point on the premise that a business understands that level of resonance and has the insight into how well they are able to engage their target market.

  23. Thanks. I wonder how to apply this to marketing a small management consulting firm (i.e., my firm).

    Seems that I need to:

    Write blog posts that are more fun, edgy and surprising. Avoid a stiff tone.

    Be more bold. Talk about stupid management practices. Name them. Bash them. And explain why they suck.

    Emulate CopyBlogger. Provide value to professional audience while making content that is like-able and shareworthy!

  24. I would take marketing advice from Voodoo, yes. Their plan is obviously working. Midwest friends and family coming to visit me in Portland already know—from their Midwest friends—that they absolutely must have Voodoo doughnuts while they’re here.

    I don’t know that I’d follow Voodoo’s other business strategies, though. A first-person (investigative?) piece for a local alt weekly recently exposed some of their priorities: get customers in and out as fast as possible; personnel are expendable; etc. http://www.wweek.com/portland/article-21767-the_hole_story.html

    Of course, I don’t run a food-service business (or even one with inventory). I guess business values do have to be calibrated by industry. It’s always fun to analyze a successful—and entertaining—company.

  25. I’m not there target customer for sure. Not a fan of donuts or voodoo, but if I pass by and see that sign at the door “Voodoo Doughnut- the magic is in the hole” and a big line at the door, for sure I want to try/ understand its magic.

    In conclusion, if you focus on marketing to your target/niche and don’t spend time/money on others, this niche will embrace your brand and attract others to experience it.

  26. I think it’s all a matter of personal style, VooDoo Doughnuts does so well as they are being true to their or the owners style and personality. If you try to rip off their technique as I am sure others have you will most likely fail. The trick is to find your style and your own voice and let it shine through in your Website or marketing strategy.
    Simply doing what every body else is doing will not cut it for the long run or for a successful business or brand.

  27. I think one thing people haven’t mentioned is the intense focus of this place. There’s a reason it’s not a Tim hortons, most donut shops feel like donuts aren’t special enough to pay the bills, so they dilute their product by being a mediocre coffee shop and a mediocre donut shop. Voodoo is special because it’s not a place you grab a donut and coffee on your commute to work. Voodoo’s not looking for that quick money, and it never will. By focusing on crafting a truly special product, even though it’s not an every day product, it’s transcended to a place where you can go to celebrate, like going out for ice cream sundaes or something else incredibly special, and they can charge accordingly for that special product instead of selling more or two crappy products. No one celebrates by going to dunkin donuts.