Brand Purpose Coronavirus QSR

3 actionable insights with… Denny's brand chief John Dillon


By Kenneth Hein, US Editor

December 3, 2020 | 7 min read

The Drum’s 3 Actionable Insights series asks industry leaders to give their thoughts on the actions our readers should take immediately. Here, we catch up with Denny's brand chief John Dillon who shares his key learnings from the past year.

Headshot of John Dillon

Headshot of Denny's brand chief John Dillon

‘America’s Diner‘ has managed to beat earnings estimates thanks to some smart, speedy and soul-searching adjustments throughout the year. Denny’s 1,700 locations dialed up four key guest-centric themes: reassurance, value, comfort and convenience. Changes have included a greater emphasis on its Denny’s on Demand curbside offering, value deals like free pancakes delivered and a thoughtful programs honoring US veterans – with more on-deck for this challenging holiday season.

Here’s what brand chief John Dillon recommends for those looking to learn the Denny's actions.

1. Embrace the fact that everyone in your company is a marketer. "As marketers we hear, quite often, that everybody likes to be a marketer even though they're not a marketer by trade or did not have classic marketing schooling. A lot of times we cringe at that a bit, but my philosophy is really to embrace it – especially in a time of disruption and crisis like we've been through.

Ideas can come from anywhere. This is not a time to be precious. It's a time to come together to seek ideas, to actively listen to all constituents. Ideas are flowing in on how we should best respond from franchisees, frontline employees at our restaurants, operators, our finance team, our supply chain team – in addition to our marketing team or agency partners. It‘s about embracing that. Your job as a marketer is to actually listen, to synthesize and prioritize the ideas that come up. But in no world should a good marketing idea only come from the marketing department. It’s a sign of an open and active leader to be able to sort through the pollination of ideas and identify the really good ideas to pursue.

This has led to adjustments during the pandemic to implement some quick fixes in our restaurants, quick fixes to the signage and merchandise in our restaurants — both inside and outside. This included letting guests know that we were open for delivery, and carry out, back when things first shut down and communicating when dining room started opening back up. We had some really scrappy franchisees and operators that were doing some really good stuff. We embraced it as opposed to saying, ‘no, it‘s got to come from marketing.’ Instead, we said you know what, ‘if it works, it works. Let's learn from it.’

We launched ‘Curbside-to-go,’ for example, very quickly based on some feedback from operators. We also went through a series of menu changes in order to simplify our menu for the guests. That was done very cross functionally, arm-and-arm with our franchisees and our operators. Yes, it‘s my responsibility, and the marketing team's responsibility, to create the final menu in the restaurants. But we need to make sure that it works for all of our guests, our team members and that we're executing – especially, again, in the middle of the pandemic that we’ve been in."

2. Make sure the red tape isn’t that sticky. "Especially in a time where there's no real playbook like we‘ve been through in 2020, don‘t seek perfection. Seek action. Get to things quickly. Make decisions quickly and then pivot and make adjustments along the way. For example, we immediately implemented safety and sanitation messaging in our restaurants and did quite a bit of communication both inside and outside the restaurants. It let our guests know how safe we are, and the steps we were specifically going through to keep our guests safe and our team members safe. We learned quickly how well it was received and we wanted to do more. We also launched a number of new products designed to appeal to families looking for convenient meal solutions. So we started actually delivering groceries because our team members and our franchisees wanted to respond to their communities and help especially in a time of early on where it was hard to get groceries in some areas. instead of saying, ‘why would anyone do that?’ We said, ‘why would anyone not do that.’ And we did it in record time. The innovation train has continued and even amped up even more. We‘ve been able to move quickly from idea-to-execution based on coming together and making sure that we don't get stuck in that red tape."

3. Find the sweet spot between brand purpose and brand positioning. "Throughout the storm, make sure you're anchoring all you do in your brand purpose. I‘m a big believer in brand purpose. There‘s a very magical, sweet spot between brand purpose and brand positioning that should be your north star. In our case, it‘s our love of feeding people, which is a direct quote from the mouth of our founder Harold Butler in 1953. Clearly there’s a literal interpretation of feeding people‘s body, but it's also feeding people's minds and souls.

The brand positioning we've had since 2011 is this idea that we are America‘s Diner. We are the go-to for unpretentious people from all walks of life, from all backgrounds, for everybody to come together over a warm meal and relax and be themselves. More than ever, that‘s what America needs right now. Loving to feed people is very critical for us and is a very strong, very bright north star. So, in our communities, during the pandemic we needed to figure out how to bring Americans that diner experience and comfort to the homes. We eliminated pain points for delivery. We promoted free delivery quite a bit working with our third-party partners. We encouraged family connection time with our family packs. We delivered groceries in communities are struggling to find the food at the grocery stores. Recently, we gave veterans thousands of free Grand Slam meals in our restaurants. There was 100% participation from all of our franchisees for this program, which we're very proud of. Then, recently, we've doubled down with our ‘Hero’s Tour‘. We literally went to veterans with our mobile relief diner and fed them meals where they are.

Brand purpose is important for consumers. But it‘s just as important, if not even more so, for internal reasons to really make sure your team members know what you stand for as a brand, and its importance as you‘re facing stresses and challenges with what's going on in the world. Making sure you‘re anchored in that brand purpose and brand positioning. It’s time to double down on it, more than ever."

Check out more of our 3 Actionable Insights series, and don’t forget to sign up for The Drum’s daily US email here.

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