VP of Brand Engagement at Denny’s on TikTok-Inspired Menu

By Leah Marshall

For every company, COVID-19 changed and shaped the way brands connected and interacted with their consumers. Denny's, the beloved restaurant franchise, is no different. Finding ways to speak to consumers during a difficult time, keep up with audience trends, and provide support and authenticity is no easy task. 

As the VP of brand engagement at Denny's, Erik Jensen is responsible for the strategic development and execution of all national and international brand elements that support overall business objectives and national calendar activities while driving integration and innovation along the way.

Erik and his team lead all advertising, in-store menu and merchandising, digital, social, web, social responsibility, media planning and internal creative development efforts at Denny's and their work has resulted in recent Effie, Cannes Lion, and Addy awards.

The ANA spoke with Jensen in advance of his presentation at the 2022 ANA Digital and Social Conference. You can read the interview below on the brand's digital and social media marketing strategies.

How did COVID-19 shift Denny's overall digital and social marketing strategy?

COVID-19 caused a significant category-wide decline in in-store traffic, with consumers spending more time engaging with a brand's digital presence, ordering delivery, and spending more time on social in general - with TikTok playing a starring role.

We needed to generate #FOMO for the brand to drive traffic back in-store once COVID-19 receded. To do so, we worked with 24 up-and-coming TikTok stars to act as hype machines to welcome the world back to Denny's, co-collaborating on unique menu items and social/digital content to drive urgency among their social communities and re-ignite crave for our food.

At the 2022 Digital and Social Conference, you'll be presenting on how Denny's leveraged TikTok creators to inspire its new Open for Anything menu. Can you tell us about how you approached influencer selection for the campaign?

We partnered with 24 influencers (representative of our equity as a 24/7 brand) who paired up to create 12 unique new menu items for Denny's to launch in 2022-2023. The 24 social stars represent the diversity of today's America: geography, race, sexual orientation, passion points, etc., while still aligning with our brand ethos of bringing people together.

The pairings were not just randomly selected, but highly orchestrated dynamic duos including amateur chefs, lifestyle mavens, and gen Z darlings. The social stars were intentionally paired up to achieve maximum results for our new menu. We ensured each meal would be a co-collaboration on everything, from the name to the ingredients, even inviting each influencer to come to our test kitchen to design the meal themselves!

What inspired the creative direction of the Open for Anything campaign and the decision to leverage TikTok influencers for it?

Seeing the rising popularity of celebrity endorsed meals, some brands are spending top dollar on celebrities in the hopes that this will drive consideration for their audience. We sought to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the pack in two unique ways:

  • Micro-Influencers: Tapped up-and-coming micro-influencers with highly-engaged communities to connect on a deeper level.
  • Focus on the Food: Task our 24 creators to create and name 12 unique new menu options from scratch, tailored to their personalities.

Partnering with up-and-coming creators to unveil all-new menu items demonstrated that we're re-introducing Denny's to the next generation on TikTok, while also reinforcing our role in serving up exciting, crave-worthy foods.

Are there any trends in digital marketing or social that you're seeing that you applied to the Open for Anything campaign?

We identified three trends that we applied to the campaign to drive success:

Influencer Partnerships

  • Credibility: Partnering with an influencer who is an authentic representation of the brand and product was critical – allowing Denny's to leverage their cultural credentials more effectively.
  • Endorsement: Influencer marketing is driving brand impact on social more than ever before. The allowance to integrate name and likeness of popular creators beyond a tweet or social post is more effective for driving audience consideration.
  • Audience: Tapping into a creator that is shaping culture with a built-in audience is a great way to buy exposure and connection with the audience you're trying to reach.

Social-First

  • Platform: Partnering with creators on TikTok is an effective way to guarantee reach to target niche communities. Since creators understand the best way to reach and engage their audience, enlisting them to create content to effectively target their audience is the best way to drive brand impact on the platform and turn a prospective audience into advocates.
  • Trend: The top performing content we've seen on the platform for foodies are food hacks, secret menus and orders, food reviews, and "Day in the Life" videos that give audiences a peek behind the scenes at what creators are doing in their down time. Tapping into what's driving conversation for an interested audience is key to driving positive results for Denny's.

Behavioral / Cultural

  • FOMO: Tapping 24 up-and-coming creators so we can reach a younger audience on a platform that we see as a key growth driver for the brand.
  • Personalization: The creators developed their own meals to appeal to their taste and style in a creative way. Never losing sight of what we do best — making crave-worthy food.
  • Starting Conversation: We aimed to create our own conversations led by TikTok creators who understand how to engage organically with their audience.

What is an area within digital and social that you think will become increasingly more important to be skilled in over the next year?

  • Shoppertainment: Live Shopping is going to be a massive driver of success for brands on social in the coming years. With eCommerce driving business results and platforms pushing broadcasting as a compelling way to engage with customers, marrying these two is the future of social marketing.
  • The NEW Social: Social is no longer just Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It's even more vast than Snapchat and TikTok. Gaming platforms, Discord and Reddit are overlooked communities that are new territory for brands, but are a welcoming space if the approach is correct.

Join Erik from July 18 to 20 along with speakers from Activision Blizzard, Denny's, Disney, Google, IBM, Lexus, Marriott, Mondelēz, Molson Coors, Sephora, Verizon, and more at the ANA's 2022 Digital and Social Media Conference Presented by Dotdash Meredith.

Register here to attend in person, purchase an in-person corporate pass, and you and your colleagues can attend for only $500 each, or purchase a corporate package for you and your colleagues to attend virtually.


The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.


Leah Marshall is the senior director of influencer marketing at ANA.