ANA Branding Marketing

How Denny’s became ‘America’s Diner’ again through a decade of marketing efforts


By Kyle O'Brien, Creative Works Editor

October 29, 2018 | 6 min read

Chances are, if you went to college in the US or had a late night of youth-filled fun, you’ve had a meal at Denny’s. But when was the last time you visited one of the yellow-signed diners?

A decade ago, the restaurant chain made a point to change direction on its declining sales, and regain its position as ‘America’s Diner.’ It did so through smart marketing, even though it made some missteps along the way.

John Dillon, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Denny’s told a crowd at the ANA Masters of Marketing Conference about how the restaurant rediscovered its purpose and found its way in a hyper-competitive market.

A Super Bowl ad and a promise of free breakfast was the first stake in the ground. “Midway through the third quarter, in Super Bowl 43…little Denny’s introduced America to this,” said Dillon before playing an ad that showed tough mobsters getting interrupted by a whipped cream-wielding server. The tag then offered everyone in the country a free Grand Slam breakfast.

That moment ended up being a huge success. Lines wrapped around restaurants, two million breakfasts were given away and the company gained $50m in PR value from the stunt. The problem was, it didn’t last.

“We didn’t have a marketing problem, we had a business problem,” said Dillon, adding that the restaurant needed to aggressively target younger people and shake an acknowledged discrimination case it settled in 1994, which stuck in some people’s minds.

The chain, founded in 1953, dug deep and asked how to get the connection back again, where people could come in and feel comfortable again. It surveyed people to try to get into the minds of customers. Said Dillon: “We asked them, ‘who is Denny’s, and how can Denny’s be relevant in your lives today?”

Feedback led the team to four main areas that transformed the brand and business: one – rediscover your soul;. two, attack barriers and turn them into beacons; three – get your swagger back; and four, commit to and amplify your purpose.

In the feedback, said Dillon: “One word kept coming up, over and over again…they used the word ‘diner’.”

Denny’s had avoided the word for years, because internally they thought a diner was a thing of the past. But as the brand listened to its guests, they found they were using it in the emotional sense of the word – as a place that would be accepting of people from all walks of life.

The brand decided to embrace the term. “By listening to our guests, we had found our very clear northstar as America’s Diner,” said Dillon. But that was just a piece of the puzzle, albeit a big one. The other was the phrase on every Denny’s sign – “Always Open.” That phrase meant more than just being open 24 hours, it meant being always open to all types of people, all times of day, all types of menu items. “We started to make that a part of who we were every single day,” said Dillon.

The advertising reflected that. The first part of the brand campaign in 2011 featured a Denny’s server calling someone “hon,” followed by a diverse group of customers all revealing their assorted Denny’s nicknames and tagged with “America’s Diner is always open.”

“We had a rediscovery of what we represented to our guests,” said Dillon.

Denny’s created a value menu to overcome price issues, it brought in healthy options to counteract a perception of being a “greasy spoon.” It created a “better pancake” and featured it in a humorous campaign. The team added new burgers and menu items, and the chain renovated restaurants.

Importantly, it diversified its workforce – which Dillon stated is a work still in progress but one they are working hard to change. Denny’s, he said, is 60% made up of “diverse employees.” 52% of its managers are diverse, and over 49% of the franchised restaurants are minority owned. The company’s marketing also reflects that diversity, and the chain has programs that speak to the nuances of its multi-cultural guests.

To address the personality of the restaurant, which Dillon stated does not take itself too seriously, they went to social channels to reflect that a Denny’s booth is a “hub of conversation.”

“The diner, when you think about it, is the original social network…(let’s) bring those wacky conversations that happen in the diner booth into the digital world.”

Denny’s reached out to comedic actor David Koechner to talk with other celebrities in a Denny’s booth. Koechner chatted with stars like Chris Pratt, Maya Rudolph and Jason Bateman in unscripted conversations. The work won Denny’s a Cannes Lions and drove its buzz rating with millennials “through the roof.”

The next iteration was a group of animated characters, the Grand Slams. The sausage character, Dillon mentioned, was tweeted about with many saying it looked like a genial turd. Instead of shying away, however, the brand embraced it and it became a running joke and a brand strength.

Denny's sausage

To amplify the brand purpose, Denny’s looked back to its founder, who said the brand “loved to feed people.” Those simple words made a connection, and one that spoke more broadly, feeding bodies, minds and souls.

The chain last year launched a mobile relief diner. Feeding people affected by Hurricane Harvey in Texas, who were in need at the time. The concept of feeding and comforting people at their time of need is held dear to the company and it plans on expanding the mobile diner concept.

While Dillon admitted that Denny’s still has a way to go to regain its success, it’s obvious that the last decade has made strides on the comfort food and human level. In fact, the chain has now seen its eighth straight year of positive sales growth, and if people keep rediscovering America's Diner, that growth is sure to continue.

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