Largely through clever social feeds, Denny's has turned its older image around since John Dillon, now the chief marketing officer, joined the chain's marketing department eight years ago.

Denny's has had something of a renaissance over the last few years. Once seen as a roadside restaurant for senior citizens and truckers, "America's Diner" now has a much younger, cooler image. The main marketer behind this transition is John Dillon, now the chief marketing officer, who's watched the industry itself transition over the course of his 20-year marketing career.

john-dillon-headshotAfter he graduated from Baylor University, Dillon's marketing career began at Pizza Hut. That was in 1995, back when widespread home Internet access was still in its infancy. Pizza Hut's marketing was very print- and radio-heavy, though digital was beginning to take off by the time he was hired as the senior director of marketing and insights at Denny's 12 years later (after a brief stint at an agency and two years with the Houston Rockets basketball team).

A lot of changes came with that appointment. Dillon moved his wife and three daughters to the chain's South Carolina headquarters - his favorite aspect of which is its relatively close proximity to both the mountains and the ocean. And professionally, Dillon wasn't transitioning Denny's marketing to a digital world, as much as it was transitioning Denny's to the digital world. At the time, the brand was 55 years old and faltering.

"I think it was just a brand that needed some energy and needed some focus," Dillon says. "What we found very quickly talking to guests and lapsed guests was that they still had love for the brand so we didn't have to recreate anything. What we needed to do was redefine who Denny's was in the eyes of our guests to appeal emotionally (Read more...) get people back in our restaurants."

Though Denny's, like Friendly's, did extensive remodeling ("there's no better billboard," Dillon says) and added healthier options to the menu, there was no brand overhaul. Rather than rebrand, Dillon decided to focus on its core identity as "America's Diner." Many of the nearly 1,700 locations are strategically placed near freeway exits and open 24 hours, giving Denny's a sense of omnipresence.

"We're always open in the literal sense, but also in the emotional sense: all different types of people from all walks of life come in whenever they're hungry, whatever time of day it is," Dillon says. "That's what a diner is and the 'America's Diner' position serves as a very important North Star for our brand, both internally and in the eyes of our consumers."

Denny's aims to be seen as America's Diner, both offline and online.
The kind of informal conversations about anything people tend to have in diner booths have extended to the brand's now-famous social media profiles.

"Like any brand or any marketer, we look at that as an important part of marketing today, as well as in the future," Dillon says. "One objective was to appeal to younger diners to get the Millennials and Millennial families into our restaurants."

The trick, he says, is to get the brand's message across without overselling, which nobody likes (we lampoon brands for trying too hard every Friday). Through funny, irreverent and topical posts on social media, Denny's endeared itself to Millennials, a threshold many declining restaurants like McDonald's have unsuccessfully attempted to cross.

Despite 883,000 Facebook likes and 228,000 Twitter followers, Denny's best-regarded contribution to the social space is its Tumblr, which Dillon recently overheard two teenage boys discussing in a booth. Whether or not Tumblr actually got them inside the restaurant, the fact that they were talking about it offline illustrates its impact.

Another social platform that's been key for Denny's is YouTube, home of The Grand Slams, a web series about animated breakfast foods that premiered in September. Each of the 11 episodes has been viewed at least 100,000 times.

"There's a balance; it's a Denny's series, but it doesn't come across that way," Dillon says. "We found that sweet spot of being relevant to the viewer in a way that makes them laugh, puts them in a good mood and makes them think about Denny's so when they're hungry, they come to the restaurant."

Could the series' branding be so strong that it works on the man in charge of marketing it? When asked about his favorite Denny's menu item, Dillon thinks for a second and says, "You can't beat a good Grand Slam."

Homepage image via Shutterstock

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