A CMO’s View: Denny’s purpose-driven marketing puts spotlight on brand’s revitalization efforts

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Dennys Diner
In recent years, Denny’s has undergone a major revitalization that has touched on everything from the restaurant’s marketing strategy to its menu items, and even the remodel of its locations. As CMO, John Dillion has led the charge to create purpose-driven marketing initiatives, putting a spotlight on the brand’s new look.

“I’ve been able to be privy to the real revitalization of the brand itself,” says Dillion, “We like to say we’re still in the early innings of the brand revitalization, but we’re very pleased and very optimistic about the trajectory that this brand is on.”

Inspired by Denny’s founder, Harold Butler, who once said the reason he opened the original restaurant was because he loved to feed people, the brand’s purpose-driven marketing initiatives are focused on feeding people’s stomachs, as well as their souls.

“We’ve had a tremendous unification behind the brand purpose and the goals of the brand, and therefore the results that we’ve seen — and the franchise system has played an incredible role in that,” says Dillion.

As part of the revitalization, Dillion says Denny’s has built a brand that reflects the growing diversity of its customers.

“I like to say we are America’s diner, but an important distinction, we’re America’s diner for today’s America,” says Dillion. “America today is much more diverse than ever before.”

According to the CMO, his brand has learned to embrace this diversity and use it to fuel Denny’s social media efforts.

“Our customers want to align with a brand that reflects that diversity in thought and diversity in people, both online and offline. We’re very proud to offer that in a way that only Denny’s can, as America’s diner.”

For today’s CMO’s View interview, Dillion shares how his brand is continuing to build its marketing strategy around the concept of feeding people, not only the food they love, but content that keeps them engaged.

Get To Know:

CMO @ Denny’s Diner


1. Be purposeful to find your purpose, determine WHY your brand does what it does. It can be one of the most mobilizing forces to your organization, and a key launch point to sales performance and affinity, not only with guests, but just as importantly, with internal employees. Use it as your North Star and drive it throughout the organization.

2. Make your brand purpose sincere and genuine. Your purpose should be firmly centered in, and born from, your brand DNA and clearly threaded to your overall positioning.

3. Make it much more than just a marketing exercise. The ultimate goal is that all your employees — from the front lines to the board room — can not only recite the brand purpose, but also understand why it’s your brand purpose, and directly apply it to their particular role within the organization.

Amy Gesenhues: Before we get into Denny’s “purpose-driven” marketing efforts, can you give me an overview of how your marketing team is structured?

John Dillion: I am fortunate to lead a fantastic team here at Denny’s. Overall responsibility is for the brand strategy and what our guests experience in the restaurant and out of the restaurant. That goes from the products we serve on the menu to the advertising, all the brand communication, and includes how a guest interacts with us online, in the restaurant, and a lot in between.

We have about 1,700 restaurants domestically and internationally that I oversee in that capacity. The team is in charge of the overall marketing direction for the company, which includes marketing strategies, brand positioning, advertising campaigns, menu development, consumer brand insights, social responsibility efforts, field marketing, brand engagement, media, menu innovations — the whole gamut.

We work to ensure our marketing efforts are aligned, and that we talk about it with purpose and vision and goals of the organization.

We’re fortunate to work with a fantastic group of operators and a really incredible group of franchisees. They’re all aligned behind the goals and objectives of the brand, and the brand vision, to drive those results into our restaurants.

AG: How does your “purpose-driven” marketing strategy apply to Denny’s branding efforts?

JD: I love to talk about that. It gets me excited because it’s a very powerful brand purpose we have, and it was started from our founder back in 1953. A gentleman named Harold Butler was asked why he started Denny’s — at the time it was actually called Danny’s Donuts. He said very simple words: “Because I love to feed people.”

As we were revitalizing our system, and our brand positioning, and really everything in between, we stumbled upon that interview he did. It spoke so much to why we exist, why this brand exists.

Obviously, we love to feed people in the physical sense, we love to feed people’s stomachs — we are a restaurant brand, that’s what we do. So much more than that, we feed people’s souls. We feed people emotionally, which ties directly into the idea of a diner.

When you’re a diner, you feed people from all different walks of life that can come into a diner and relax and be themselves — all different kinds of people, all different types of food, no matter what time of day. People really lay their titles down at the door. They come in with no pretenses and they relax in a warm, comfortable environment, and really get their soul fed.

That’s what this brand is based on. It’s a unique space that a diner can play that a lot of other restaurant brands don’t play as well.

We’ve really embraced that, this idea of what makes Denny’s special. We did extensive research on the brand positioning that led us to America’s diner, but the brand purpose was in a simple statement of our founder, which we have used as a North Star.

AG: When has Denny’s used purpose-driven marketing to lead a specific marketing initiative?

JD: I think a great example of that higher purpose for us was a campaign we organized around an annual fundraiser with “No Kid Hungry.” Our brand purpose then clearly extends into our social responsibility efforts.

We’re a long-time partner, a very proud partner, of “No Kid Hungry,” and we’ve been able to raise over $4 million now to help end childhood hunger in the United States. This year we extended the efforts that happen in our restaurant into the online space. We invited our guests to share a picture of their meal at Denny’s and share online, using the hashtag #ShareMySlam which we also promoted through our channels in our restaurants.

@DennysDiner we loved our breakfast this morning, berry pancakes & an All American Slam! ? 4 Denny’s in 5 days in the US ❤️ ? #ShareMySlampic.twitter.com/AXzVS1KA8n

— Abi Carpenter (@Abi_Carpenter) October 5, 2016

For every pictured shared, we donated a dollar to this cause. It was a great example of how we leverage the power of social media to support one of our largest social responsibility efforts and it’s all driven by this notion of wanting to feed people.

We do similar efforts, as a brand, around “Hungry for Education” and some other social responsibility efforts. We’re also giving veterans a free Grand Slam on Veteran’s Day, which we will be promoting on social as well.

Join us for Veterans Day! Veterans get a free Grand Slam from 5 am to Noon at participating restaurants.

Posted by Denny’s on Thursday, November 6, 2014

We do a lot of things with that voice, and one of them is giving back.

AG: Where are you focusing your social efforts?

JD: Our primary focus centers around Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and we’ve just recently expanded into SnapChat and also YouTube, depending on if you classify that as a social channel or not.

We’ve had a presence on almost all of these platforms for years now. I would say it’s probably around 2012 or 2013 — once we really started to solidify our brand purpose and our positioning even more — that we started to build a really comprehensive strategy around social media to determine how it aligned with our brand purpose.

Through that process we had to evaluate each of those platforms individually and determine who our audience was and what type of content they found the most interesting as it relates to their relationship with Denny’s on those sites. I would say the work has paid off. We have had success, very much strong success, growing those channels.

In the past three years, we’ve grown our fan base at what we consider a fairly impressive rate, by over 1,000 percent on Twitter, over 950 percent on Tumblr, over 60 percent on Facebook — and we’ve really hit our stride in the tone that’s reflective of our brand on each of those sites.

The tone is unique to each of the platforms, so you’ll see the tone is slightly different depending on the platform and the audience on the platform. We’ve taken steps to truly understand the ways in which people are interacting with each of those platforms individually, and we continue to change and evolve, but we feel that we’ve found that voice.

For us, it isn’t about focusing on a specific platform, and necessarily, how to grow up, but rather how do you make sure your content continues to reflect the Denny’s experience in the online space. Bringing that diner to that online space in a way that’s exciting for the fans, engaging for the fans, to keep them coming back for more and really building that relationship with Denny’s based on that brand purpose.

AG: How do you approach content differently among your social networks?

JD: For Facebook, it’s more about our promotions and our food — specifically what’s going on. That’s probably a little more conservative. Tumblr is all about the millennial-based target creating content — and they’re really using their creativity that we fan the flames of and amplify.

Tumblr is more of that true Denny’s voice, the off-center brand that doesn’t take itself too seriously but reacts to pop culture and really embraces those conversations that happen in a diner.

AG: Is it difficult to maintain Denny’s purpose-driven marketing direction while managing spontaneous social conversations and engaging customers on social?

JD: Again, it’s feeding people content they’re interested in and that they want to share with friends and family. Our purpose obviously works in the literal sense, when we say we are working to provide our guests with the perfect breakfast or the perfect burger or shake, but we also want to feed the lives of our guests by providing them a place to share great conversation, and the ability to do that.

It does work in the social space, where we try to replicate that experience that you might actually have in that Denny’s booth. That’s so important. Those conversations that happen in the Denny’s booth, extended into the social space.

The overall strategy remains consistent throughout all of our social channels; the content that audiences consume varies slightly, though, according to the channel. What we feed them varies with that.

For instance, on Facebook, we’re more likely to share the brand news, broad news or promotions, where Twitter is more about pop culture. Tumblr is about emotional relevance and the self-expression, a little bit wacky. It all is based on the notion of interacting with the audience, having fun, feeding their souls with content that they care about and they want to pass on.

Again, it’s all driven by the brand position of America’s diner, and that intent to feed people’s souls and stomachs at the same time.

AG: Are any of the social platforms you use more difficult than others to use to meet your goal of purpose-driven marketing?

JD: It’s not that one platform is more difficult than another, but I think every brand has a challenge of trying to stay ahead of a very rapidly changing landscape on social media.

Clearly, you know better than anybody that it changes in about a day, almost. We understand that each social media platform has a unique culture and a unique audience, so we build each platform differently depending on that audience.

We’re staying true to our brand positioning, and making sure to communicate with our fans on their terms, versus our terms, based on the unique characteristics of each platform.

It feels natural within the platform itself versus a brand talking to them in the way a brand wants to talk to them. We’re very adaptable that way. It’s allowed us to keep an online voice that’s consistent and tied to the strategy and purpose without feeling forced.

AG: How has Denny’s purpose-driven marketing strategy impacted the brand’s bottom line?

JD: The million dollar question, right? It’s always hard to see directly, and I think a marketer would be lying if they could tell you to the dollar or even a general dollar amount that is contributed to the bottom line. No marketer can say that without a shadow of doubt.

Our overall communication efforts, though –including the social piece to articulate that position — played, we believe, a very big role in our results.

Importantly, it’s clearly beyond marketing, it’s clearly beyond social. It’s all things coming together with the brand, including the remodel and our stronger focus on operations and franchisees really embracing what we’re doing from a marketing space and beyond.

Last year, we had our highest in-store sales and traffic growth in over a decade, and this year we’re proud to be able to continue on a positive base in an industry that’s really facing challenges.

There are many aspects of our business that have driven those results, though, so I just want to be clear about that. Again, the remodel of the operations, focus, franchisees, what we would consider our success on social media — a voice that’s really resonating is an important part of that. We made improvements to our menu, that’s been an important part of that. We’ve remodeled our restaurants.

The social strategy is to be the online version of the Denny’s booths. They may not be hungry when they see that social post or they see something that we put out there — and we’re okay with that because we’re trying to be relevant, even significant in their lives — so when they are hungry, they think of Denny’s. We’re top of mind, and that drives them into the restaurant.

AG: Have Denny’s social efforts informed your brand’s overall marketing?

JD: We’re fortunate to have a very, very engaged following on social media. We think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we work hard to have our work on social stay true to our brand purpose and our brand overall.

We get a lot of credit for what we’ve been doing and accomplishing on social media, but it’s only part of that larger marketing and brand strategy that’s helped us achieve the success we’ve seen recently. Again, the help of the franchisees has led us here, too, and we’ve been committed to improving the way our fans experience the brand overall, including the guest experience in the restaurant.

We’ve made tremendous investments in our food quality, we’ve improved or changed 77 percent of our menu since 2010, 44 percent over the last three years alone, improved the atmosphere in the restaurants, remodeled our restaurants. Social media will work and has worked to highlight some of those changes we’ve made in the restaurants, and we’ll amplify that as we continue to grow.

Social media platforms are meant to serve as an online extension of what you might expect to experience in one of our restaurants — the conversation in the diner booth or at the counter. A comfortable place where friends and family or strangers can have a fun conversation around great American diner food. Really, the social presence is an amplification of that.

About The Author

Amy Gesenhues is Third Door Media’s General Assignment Reporter, covering the latest news and updates for Marketing Land and Search Engine Land. From 2009 to 2012, she was an award-winning syndicated columnist for a number of daily newspapers from New York to Texas. With more than ten years of marketing management experience, she has contributed to a variety of traditional and online publications, including MarketingProfs.com, SoftwareCEO.com, and Sales and Marketing Management Magazine. Read more of Amy’s articles.


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