Leading a Brand Revitalization at Denny's

September 11, 2018

By Ryan Dinger


When John Dillon took over as CMO of Denny's four years ago, he was tasked with continuing to guide a revitalization strategy that had brought the casual-dining restaurant back from the brink of bankruptcy. In the time since, Dillon, who has worked on the marketing team at Denny's for ten years in total, has been able to capitalize on the growing momentum, turning it into a series of wins for the once beleaguered brand.

At the 2018 ANA Masters of Marketing Conference, Dillon will share the insights that led to some of those successes and has brought the brand back into the black, culminating with a seventh straight year of positive sales to close out 2017. Ahead of that session, we sat down with John to discuss some of what he will share during his session. You can find that conversation below.

Q. When you took over Denny's as CMO four years ago, what were some of the big challenges the brand faced and how have you worked to overcome them?

Around the time I moved into the role of CMO, we were in the early stages of a brand revitalization strategy that re-centered everything we do behind our brand purpose and a new brand position that highlights all of the great and unique things that make us "America's Diner."

We were at a point where we had lost focus on who we were as a brand and lost sight of what made Denny's special to our guests. Many memories of Denny's were strong, but they were rooted in experiences and perceptions from years and years ago, and hadn't yet been updated to make the brand relevant to guests today. We went all-in and started on an aggressive revitalization journey to reframe the essence of the Denny's brand and recapture the hearts and minds of America.

The first step was to listen to our guests, including those who hadn't been to Denny's for a while, and force ourselves to accept the good feedback with the not-so-good. Through that process, we realized the equity we have as a diner. When we think about being a diner, we obviously mean that in the physical sense, but possibly even more important is the emotional sense. A diner is a place where people of all ages from different backgrounds can come together in a welcoming environment with friends and family for a great meal. With that understanding, our new position as "America's Diner" was born, and it still guides us today.

Q. Recently, Denny's has become much more active in leveraging partnerships with newer brands like Hulu and Pandora. What is the thinking behind these partnerships?

When we talk about our brand purpose and feeding the minds of our guests, that becomes clearer through our partnerships. We are always looking for new ways to get people thinking and talking about Denny's to shake up some of the older, outdated perceptions of the brand. Sometimes that means through partnerships that may surprise people, especially in the digital space.

That all comes from an understanding of who our guests are. We have aggressively targeted the modern, multigenerational, multicultural, tech-savvy consumer through partnerships with Hulu, Pandora, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, among others. We know that to reach those guests, we have to communicate with them on and in their terms in a way that feels unobtrusive. For some people, that might mean a funny video on Hulu, for others it could mean putting our Denny's spin on a trending meme on Twitter.

Q. How did you and your team develop the voice for social media?

Our social voice really came from our brand position and all of the great things people associate with a diner — a place where everyone can come together for a great time, let their guard down, and have some great conversations and make connections. Since we look at our social channels as the online version of the Denny's booth, we're always looking for ways to take part in online conversations around trending topics and cultural events, but in lighthearted ways that could only be associated with Denny's. It's a strategy that feels completely natural for our brand, which is why I believe it's resonated. And just like our restaurants, we're always on, making sure our content is timely and relevant to ensure it feels more natural and relatable.

Q. When your time at Denny's comes to an end, what would you most like to be remembered for?

I truly believe we as marketers can serve a higher purpose than the standard perception of driving sales. Creative awards and ROI metrics are important, but there's more. As CMOs or marketers in general, we truly have the opportunity to be a force for positive change in our guests' lives, and, I dare say, even in society. At Denny's, embracing, amplifying, and unifying our system behind this higher purpose of feeding people's bodies, minds, and souls, and focusing on our evolvement to this welcome, inclusive diner to all has elevated the brand to have an impact on people's lives. So beyond the obvious and important need to drive daily sales, maximize profitability, and grow market share, if in any way the work my team and I have done has made a positive difference in one single life, it's been well worth it.


Hear more from Dillon at the 2018 ANA Masters of Marketing Conference, October 24–27 in Orlando, Fla.


Ryan Dinger is a senior manager of marketing and communications at the ANA.

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