How Denny’s Rebuilt Its Fading Brand Into a Modern, Social-Savvy Business

CMO John Dillon shares how the chain transformed

At the ANA Masters of Marketing Week, Denny's CMO John Dillon spoke about his brand's successful repositioning.
Headshot of Diana Pearl

In 2009, Denny’s was in a rough spot. Foot traffic to its restaurants had been on the decline for several years in a row. And though its brand awareness was strong—over 95 percent of Americans knew Denny’s, and a similar percentage had been to the restaurant at one point—many visitors hadn’t returned in years.

In hopes of changing the tide, Denny’s paid $3 million for a Super Bowl ad spot, a humorous clip that showed a serious, mob-style conversation about “finishing the job” that was interrupted by a friendly Denny’s server spraying whipped cream into a smile on a plate of pancakes. The highlight of the commercial wasn’t the laugh gag, but what came after it: an offer of a free Grand Slam breakfast meal, from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. the next day.

The idea was, in order to get customers back to Denny’s, give them an incentive, Denny’s CMO John Dillon said during his presentation at the ANA Masters of Marketing Week event in Orlando. And it worked—at first. Lines wrapped around Denny’s locations across the country the next day, and 2 million Grand Slams were given away during the promotion. Dillon said that it “struck an emotional chord with the country.”

For a bit afterwards, that trend continued and customers were coming back. But within a few months, the visitor numbers had slumped again. And Dillon said that’s because Denny’s hadn’t addressed the foundational problems that had caused the drop-off in the first place.

“The Super Bowl ad did its job,” he said. “We needed to do ours.”

Since then, Denny’s has grown tremendously, making a massive pivot from where the brand was nearly a decade ago when they put out that Super Bowl ad. But that shift took time and effort. And even at its most trying points, Dillon said, “We had hope because when you said Denny’s, people still seemed to smile.”

At ANA, Dillon expanded upon the four major steps that went into that transformation.

Rediscover your soul

The first step on this journey, Dillon said, was for Denny’s to “rediscover” its soul. Denny’s is known for being open 24 hours a day, but the physical openness hadn’t been translating into an emotionally “open” brand. That, along with modernizing Denny’s to appeal to the younger, millennial customer, became the brand’s priority. The Denny’s transformation was “not just a repositioning, but a rediscovery,” said Dillon.

Turn barriers into beacons

Through research, Denny’s discovered several reasons why customers had turned away from the business. These included price, convenience, perception (people often viewed Denny’s solely as a breakfast restaurant), a lack of diversity and a stale menu, among other “barriers.”

Dillon said that Denny’s worked to alleviate these roadblocks one at at time. The brand changed up its menu, making pancakes fluffier and rotating 80 percent of the offerings.  For customers who felt that Denny’s offerings were too expensive, it launched the 2-4-6-8 value menu, with items at $2, $4, $6 and $8. To make its food more convenient to get, Denny’s launched online ordering, too. And it’s made a commitment to diversity, with minorities represented in nearly 50 percent of franchisees, 52 percent of managers, 68 percent of its workforce and 50 percent of its board of directors.

Get your swagger back

Now, Denny’s has no shortage of swagger, thanks to a beloved social media account that uses humorous posts, memes and videos to connect with consumers. The thought, Dillon said, was to “bring those wacky conversations that happen in a diner booth into the digital world.” The brand has brought that comedic persona even to its gaffes—when a customer pointed out on Twitter that a cardboard cutout of its sausage mascot appeared to look like, well, a piece of poop, it hit back with a laugh-inducing tweet.

“Instead of ignoring it, we saw it as a brand opportunity to come back and help spread our message,” said Dillon.

Denny’s also produced branded content that helped to cultivate that new, social-savvy vibe, including a web series called Always Open that featured celebrity interviews in a Denny’s booth. That show ended up winning a Cannes Lions in 2012.

Amplify your purpose

“We love to feed people,” said Dillon. “Not only their bodies but their souls and their minds, every single day.” That’s the mantra Denny’s wants its customers to feel whenever they encounter the brand.

This purpose is driven home particularly through the philanthropic work Denny’s partakes in—funding scholarships for first-time college students and HBCUs and donating over $6 million to No Kid Hungry. It also launched the Mobile Relief Diner, a program that provides food to people in the wake of a natural disaster.

And of course, Dillon said they want it to be felt in the diners themselves, too. “It comes to life when we feed people in our restaurants with a great experience,” said Dillon.

“We’re not perfect yet, but we’re more and more united under the same purpose.”

@dianapearl_ Diana is the deputy brands editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.