Diners have been around since the late 1800s. By the 1960s, they became displaced by the rise of fast-food chains, only to made a comeback three decades later with a renewed taste for around-the-clock, classic American dining. That, in turn, placed Generation X and Boomers front and center as the primary market.
So it’s little wonder why Denny’s CMO John Dillon is set on “aging down” the brand.
In this exclusive interview with CMO.com, Dillon talks about how Denny’s is reaching a younger audience, strategic priorities, and consumer trends.
CMO.com: What is the biggest challenge that Denny’s faces today?
Dillon: I think it is a fantastic time to be a marketer; it’s also a challenging time to be a marketer. And Denny’s is no different. We have, I think, done a nice job identifying our core target, our positioning behind the brand, and, most importantly, a purpose to the brand and why we exist.
From there the challenge and opportunity is, how do you communicate in some unique way to get attention and drive brand affinity in such a challenging environment? It used to be just TV, print, and radio. Clearly, the world and consumer expectations are much different. Marketers need to stay on their toes. At the same time, they have so many more options available to them to drive a very targeted message in a very effective way.
CMO.com: How are you using digital?
Dillon: We use digital to communicate the brand. We’re America’s diner. That means we are a brand that’s open to all different types of people, all different walks of life, all different backgrounds, who like different menu items at different times of the day. We communicate the experience of a diner, both in our restaurant and within the digital world.
A lot of conversations happen in a diner, right? People let their guard down and have conversations that connect them with family, friends, and even strangers. Our digital space carries that forward. The strategy with digital is to extend the conversations that happen in a diner booth or counter into the digital space. They work in conjunction.
A lot of what you’ll see from us in digital has a very unique personality, just like our brand has and just like the conversations that happen in a Denny’s. We think that sets us apart. Connecting the experience to the online presence of the brand is one thing we pride ourselves on doing well, and we can continue to work on that in the future.
CMO.com: You have a unique personality on social media. Can you talk about that?
Dillon: We’re a 63-year-old brand, but we’re a brand that has a lot of personality at the same time and is driven from the north star of being a diner. As we look to extend that diner personality into the digital space, that goes into social media. We have, I would say, an even more progressive voice on Tumblr. A lot of that’s user-generated content.
We use a different social channel, though, to be specific with what we’re trying to accomplish as a brand and speak in the voice and language of the users of that particular social site. We talk about pop-culture events that people are talking about at the diner. If something’s in pop culture, chances are we’re going to be talking about it in our social voice, in a unique “only at Denny’s” kind of way.
A lot of the content you’ll see has a little bit of a wink and a smile and a personality. We make people laugh. We make people want to share the content. Our strategy with that is, one, it’s the brand voice, but, two, if we can be relevant and even significant in the lives of guests and potential guests, then when they’re hungry, they’re going to think of Denny’s. They might not be hungry right when they’re looking at the specific tweet that we just put out, or the video we just created, but those type of vehicles make us more top-of-mind.
CMO.com: I know content marketing is a big priority for Denny’s. What exactly is the brand story you are trying to tell? Why do you think you’ve been so successful?
Dillon: I’ll give you an example. We have a branded content series we call “The Grand Slams,” which is an animated series, and it takes advantage of our brand voice–it really amplifies that brand voice. It started with a strategy of making our iconic menus items more relevant to Millennials and Generation Z.
We noticed a lot of people knew about the Grand Slam [menu item], but we wanted more people to tie that to Denny’s. We created this kind of off-center, humorous, relevant, pop-culture-based series that has garnered literally millions of views and millions of completed views. We’ve accomplished making our menu items more relevant and the brand, itself, more relevant to Gen Z and Millennials.
We started in branded content in 2011, when we had a series called “Always Open” that we created with Dave Koechner of “Anchorman” and several other movies. He came into a Denny’s, sat down in a booth, and had conversations with different A-level celebrities about nothing in particular. They happened to be eating Denny’s food, but none of the rest was branded or scripted. We ran two seasons, which helped us communicate what a diner is and the open conversations that happen. That’s when our brand relevance and significance with Millennials started really taking off. We’ve continued that trajectory of branded content ever since.
CMO.com: So what does a typical day look like for you?
Dillon: I get the privilege of working with an incredible marketing team who completely understands our brand. They have a lot of freedom to come with new ideas and new thinking on how we drive our brand relevance forward and how we increase sales on a daily and a longer-term basis.
I’m involved in conversations daily about continuing our operations increases. We’ve remodeled over 40% of our system, which has increased the relevance of the physical asset to our guests, and we’re going to continue that trajectory.
I think daily about how we work with our franchisees. We’re about a 90%-franchised system, and our franchisees are really buying into the brand vision and are partners with us. As a CMO, that’s invaluable because we all share the same purpose and vision for where this brand is going.
CMO.com: What are your big three marketing priorities for 2017?
Dillon: I would say we’ve done a lot of work around brand purpose. We have an incredible brand purpose that we’re going to continue to amplify both internally and externally.
We love to feed people–that’s something our founder said in 1953 when he created Denny’s. For us, it’s a physical sense of loving to feed people, but, more importantly, it’s that emotional sense of loving to feed people. Amplifying that voice, both to our internal employees as well as to guests and potential guests, is a big priority for us.
We will also continue to focus on driving marketing with Millennials and Generation Z as we continue to age down the brand, while keeping our core consumers. Quite frankly, it’s an opportunity for us that we’re going to continue to drive. We had great success there, but we will continue that momentum.
From a menu standpoint, we continue to invest in new products and ingredients, like our recent pancake launch, where we made them 50% fluffier by adding buttermilk, real eggs, and a hint of vanilla. We’ve increased, improved, or changed over 70% of our menu in the last six years, almost 50% in the last three years alone, so continuing to invest in product quality is a primary focus for us.
CMO.com: Are there any consumer trends you’re keeping a close eye on?
Dillon: I would say transparency in ingredients and in sourcing is something consumers are demanding more and more. We’ve done a number of things along those efforts and that will be a continued focus: making sure that consumers, our guests, understand our food and our commitment to food quality.
CMO.com: Can you provide a word of advice to our readers?
Dillon: Know your brand and what you stand for. There’s nothing more important in marketing right now than really understanding your brand purpose and how it motivates everything you do, both internally and also to the guests. Articulating that and amplifying that brand purpose would be my one piece of advice and to continue to be disruptive in how you do it.