Hungry to Amplify Emotional Brand Connections


Denny’s SVP and CMO John Dillon likes to think of his company’s diners as the country’s “original social network.” The ongoing—and increasingly bilingual—conversations his marketing team holds with customers in “America’s Diner” and on social networks makes Dillon think about opportunities and smile about successes. His combination of intellectual curiosity and creative risk-taking has served up an innovative collection of marketing partnerships and programs that have helped bring the sizzle back to a classic brand.

What’s your marketing passion?
What comes to mind is something that I’ve been able to be a part of throughout my career: identifying and, in some cases, amplifying the emotional connection between a brand and its fans. I’ve been fortunate to work for several different passion brands over the years, ranging from pizza to sports to bacon, including Yum! Brands/Pizza Hut and with the NBA’s Houston Rockets. We’ve dusted off Denny’s extremely strong brand DNA, and worked with the team to amplify it in a way that makes our customers smile and, most important, want to return to our diners more often.

What is Denny’s brand?
We’re “America’s Diner.” This message serves as our North Star, guiding all of our marketing activities and now guiding areas well beyond marketing, including our successful store remodels and our significant improvement in operations. We’re fortunate to work for a brand with a strong DNA and unique personality, which gives us the flexibility to try some fun things. You see that personality come through in the work we’ve done over the past few years, with our menu improvements, but also the marketing work including with Atari, with our branded content like our Grand Slams series, and what we’re doing with DreamWorks now.

How do you stay focused on your North Star?
It started with truly understanding our guests and what they love about Denny’s. Then we spent some time clearly identifying what Denny’s is, and what it isn’t. We’ve invested time developing documents about our brand’s DNA. We put exactly what the brand is—and exactly what it isn’t—down on paper and we live it every day. Our internal team, as well as our agencies, continually returns to those guidelines. From there we provide a healthy amount of freedom to be creative within that framework, but we stay within the guidelines of the brand. When an idea comes to the table, we’re quickly able to say, “Yes!” or, “No, that’s not Denny’s.” That’s the power of having such a clearly defined brand positioning.

Tell us about your work with Atari.
The partnership was conceived as a way to celebrate two iconic American brands coming together to create something modern and innovative. To go along with our “Greatest Hits Remixed” menu items, Atari created remixes of their classic 2600 video games that diners can play by downloading the Denny’s app. The storylines for mobile games like “Hashteroids,” “Centipup,” and “Take-Out” are based on the original Atari storylines used in the video games Asteroids, Centipede, and Breakout. The games also have Denny’s-themed items and features, like ketchup-bottle shooters and flying hash browns.

How about the DreamWorks Kids Menu that appeared in March?
We launched a kids’ menu that features interactive content and characters from classic DreamWorks properties like Penguins of Madagascar, Shrek, How to Train Your Dragon, and other DreamWorks films and TV series. The menu offers customizable kids’ dishes as well as themed puzzles, games, and digital content—all of which are designed to create dialogue and engage the millennial family during mealtimes. Plus, we added some relevant technology; families can download the exclusive DreamWorks COLOR App, which is a modern take on the traditional diner activity of coloring on paper menus.

You also make use of social media. What do you see as some keys to social media marketing effectiveness?
It goes back to having clearly defined brand positioning. I’m also able to surround myself with a fantastic and innovative team, who are always pushing for new ideas, are in touch with new forms of marketing, and are encouraged to take some risks. We have a fantastic agency team at Erwin Penland that leads our day-to-day social media activities. They come to us with great ideas all the time. The brand guidelines we’ve jointly created basically say, “Here’s what our brand is, here’s what our brand is not,” and then we provide the “freedom within the framework” to allow our brand voice to get out there in an appropriate and compelling way. We also look at a combination of data, metrics, and marketing “gut” judgments to determine what’s working and what’s not, and how we can continue to be more effective.

What qualities do you look for when you’re putting together a marketing team?
I’m a big believer in insights-driven marketing. That means digging into our guests and figuring out what makes them tick. Sometimes that’s articulated by the guest and other times it remains unarticulated so you have to read between the lines. The team we’ve built here very much is able to do this; I’m proud of the work they’ve done and the effectiveness of it.

What specific skills help marketers read between the lines?
One way is by constantly asking “What if?” questions. Dig a couple levels deeper than you may think you need to to find the creative ideas or link two seemingly disparate ideas into something special. Our Atari partnership is a great example of this. A combination of people from our team and our agency were looking at some social media posts and someone asked if our “Greatest Hits Remixed” menu promotion might have a tie to video games, which led to: What if Atari also remixed some of its greatest hits?

What other competencies do you look for when hiring?
You also want people who have the intellectual curiosity necessary to dig below the surface to look for hidden insights. This is going to sound funny when I say it, but one of the reasons we have a Hobbit movie partnership with Warner Bros. Pictures is because before we entered into the relationship, we did a lot of digging. One of the things we unearthed is that hobbits eat seven meals a day, including two breakfasts. We were compelled with the partnership to begin with, but after reading that in the books, the partnership made even more sense to us. We’re careful to avoid trying to simply borrow equity through these partnerships. Any equity we gain has to make sense for our own brand and the message we’re trying to convey. When we applied our curiosity, we saw that this relationship made sense on several levels.

Tell us a little bit about why Univision presented Denny’s with a Digital Trail Blazer award.
It was the first time the award was given, and we’re proud to have been recognized by Univision and the NPD Group at the Restaurant Leadership conference for our efforts in multicultural marketing. One in four of our guests are Hispanic, and Hispanics are our fastest-growing demographic segment. So, we continually talk to Hispanic guests and have a very strong Hispanic agency Casanova Pendrill to help us do that well. Our Hispanic Latino Facebook page is one of very few in the restaurant industry that is in Spanish. That’s done a lot of good things for us. We’ve also held Hispanic-branded contests and produced a significant amount of content in Spanish. We continue to learn every day how to better reach our Hispanic guests.

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