Denny's chief 'opens' up on iconic brand

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If one is of the mindset that any buzz is good buzz, then Denny's Corp. has hit a grand slam with its launch of online videos from DumbDumb. The shorts, "hosted" by actor and comedian David Koechner and shot at a "real" Denny's, feature such comedic luminaries as Sarah Silverman, Amy Poehler, Jason Bateman and Will Arnett. Comments from various corners of the Internet range from those who are tickled, to those who are sort of "Ugh, I didn't want to like this, but I do..." to outright hostility at the "corporatization" of entertainment.


Love 'em or hate 'em, they're getting noticed and are just one in a series of new and fresh marketing moves initiated and overseen by Frances Allen, a British transplant and now an American citizen, who in mid-2010 took over as CMO of Spartanburg, S.C.-based Denny's. If there is any irony to the fact that Denny's, an iconic brand in the vein of the good ole USA, is being steered by a Brit, Allen doesn't spend much time dwelling on such twists of fate.


The authenticity of Denny's as an all-American brand is a big part of what attracted Allen to the diner-chain, after stints at other such iconic US-born-and-bred brands such as Dunkin' Donuts, PepsiCo and The Coca-Cola Co. 


"I do love a challenge, and Denny's is a brand that is such an American icon that seemed to have lost its way," says Allen. "Understanding how we could make it relevant again is just a marketer's dream — you don't see those sort of opportunities that often."


The Highlights

Denny's relies on social buzz

Online Video

The “America's Diner is Always Open” TV campaign from Gotham launched in January. In March, it added comedian-studded webisodes. The online videos were produced by DumbDumb. Ensemble aided the series development.

Social Media

Denny's is celebrating a limited-time bacon-themed menu, “Baconalia.” The tongue-in-cheek promotion also included a Facebook sweepstakes for two all-expenses paid trips and VIP passes to the sold-out Baconfest Chicago 2011.

Website

Denny's relaunched Dennys.com in April, adding new interactive features, such as a restaurant finder, Twitter stream and a live Facebook fan count. Visitors will find navigation more reminiscent of an app as they scroll through features.

The restaurant company — shaken last year in part by a shareholder-led revolt resulting in new top management, including Allen — badly needed marketing help. As struggles ensued in the executive suite, the marketing became muddled and unfocused.


"The whole concept of a diner, comfort food, great value and great warm, welcoming service — those are all things that intrigued me," Allen says. "Over the years, the company had a number of marketing messages and it wasn't really making any connections and meanwhile there was a proliferation of competition that frankly, was doing a 
better job."


When Allen joined Denny's, the company was in the midst of an agency review, and in August, selected Interpublic Group's Gotham as agency of record for its $60 million account. Denny's used the spec creative Gotham pitched during the agency review and launched a new campaign in January, "America's Diner is Always Open."


The 'open' part of the tagline implies much more than the 24/7 operations, Allen says. "Yes, it's the physical hours that we're open, but it's also that mindset of being open to everyone always — all ethnicities, all ages, all income groups, and driving that positioning throughout the organization, whether it's the service, the menus, that idea of how do we make sure we are telling every customer at every touchpoint that we are America's diner, that we are providing comfort and that we are providing a safe haven."


In drilling down and mapping the DNA of the Denny's customer, Allen says what further comes through is that the dining chain's customers cut across all demographics, but have a thread of commonality, too.


"They're connected by a set of values — hard work, authenticity and family," Allen says. "As we talked to customers about the economy, we heard a common expression — 'white collar got us into this and blue collar will get us out.' Denny's is the brand that will be there for them as they go through this process."


Now that Allen has the positioning focused, she's moving forward with exploiting every platform to tell Denny's story, including the aforementioned online video efforts, as well as websites, Twitter and apps.


As a sideshow to its current main event promotion, 
"Baconalia" — all bacon, all the time and such offerings as a maple bacon sundae, Denny's launched a bacon-smell app — on April's Fool Day. Other direct-to-consumer efforts include man-versus-food challenges, feeds on Facebook and Twitter to alert hungry parties to new menu items, and a rewards program that presently has 1.3 million members.


Will Kussell, the former president of Dunkin' Donuts, where Allen was CMO two years prior to joining Denny's, says she has a great understanding of the evolution of 
social media. 


"She really took us to a different level in those areas, and all built on a strong leadership model," Kussell says. "We really evolved the whole 'America Runs on Dunkin' positioning that involved microblogs, online promotions and more. She really leveraged that whole social media platform for us."


Meanwhile, Allen continues to push Denny's story, which is getting some nice sizzle including from such sites as www.eater.com, and in April from Stephen Colbert, where on his show he took the Denny's mindset a step further in "recommending" bacon cologne, because, "What if after eating 12 courses of bacon," Colbert pondered, "you still don't smell enough like bacon?" 


Allen, who is now focused on refining Denny's message, doesn't mind if those who shape our pop culture take a little poke at Denny's now and again.


"It's about innovating as much as you can, which we've just seen with the maple bacon sundae, which is a small example of what you can do when you really know who you are, whether it's bacon-smelling apps or innovations through the stores," says Allen. "It's about having a strong pipeline of ideas."

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