Denny’s CMO reveals plan to age down brand

Denny’s CMO reveals plan to age down brand

The family-dining chain is seeing a boost from remodels, better food and partnerships with millennial friendly brands.

In early April, Denny’s unleashed a partnership with Lucasfilm to promote new menu and collector items tied to “Solo: A Star Wars Story” movie. 

The collaboration with the epic space opera franchise is part of a revitalization plan that involves striking partnerships with unexpected brands such as Hulu, Pandora and Amazon, chief marketing officer John Dillon said during a media event held at the famed El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood.

“Our corporate strategy is to turn heads in a way that gets people talking about Denny’s,” Dillon said when explaining the company’s new partnership with Lucasfilm.

Dillon, CMO since 2014, said the Spartanburg, S.C.-based restaurant chain has fared well as it adapts to drastic changes in consumer dining habits. The brand overhaul has included remodeling stores, improving food quality and expanding its digital relationships with both new and loyal customers.

The brand changes have contributed to seven consecutive years of positive same-store sales growth, Dillon said. That’s an incredible feat, considering most full service chains are struggling to keep diners in the door as consumers trade to value-oriented, quick-service brands or opt to eat at home.

Dillon said Denny’s is not finished, just yet.

“We’re clearly not done. Things will only continue to get better.”

Denny’s was co-founded in 1953 by Harold Butler. He started the coffee and doughnut shop, then called Danny’s Donuts, because he loved feeding people 24 hours a day. The brand is focused on sticking to those core roots, Dillon said.

Here’s what Dillon had to say during his opening remarks, as well as a post-event interview with Nation’s Restaurant News. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Q: Are you partnering with brands such as Facebook, BuzzFeed and now Star Wars, to win over Generation Y and Z?

A: We’re really looking to up our game and appeal to a different generation of buyers. The beauty of a franchise like Star Wars, it appeals to people like me, so Gen X. It appeals to Baby Boomers, Gen Z and millennials. As a family diner, it made a ton of sense for us. [These partnerships] have started to age down the brand, which is one of our objectives.

Q: Has this push improved sales?

A:  We’re all pushing to become more relevant to millennials every day.  We’re proud of the results we’ve seen. It’s a continued area of focus for us. That bleeds into our aggressiveness behind Denny’s On Demand [a 24-hour delivery platform], to make sure we continue to appeal to Millennials, and the expectations of convenience with the food no matter what time of day.

Q: By aging down the brand, how do you ensure you don’t alienate your core casual-dining customer?

A: We look at promotions that can do all. Star Wars is such a beautiful partner for us. It does appeal younger, but it appeals to seasoned customers as well.

Q: How has Denny’s created a better food experience?

A:  We have improved or changed over 85 percent of our menu entrees. This new elevated menu includes quality and highly craveable dishes — all made to order, featuring fresh produce sourced from local businesses. We now offer items such as salmon, USDA select steaks, hand-pressed 100 percent beef burgers and turkey bacon.

We’ve revamped one our staple items — our pancake recipe. Now made with real buttermilk, fresh eggs and a hint of vanilla. (Editor’s note: Denny’s won an NRN MenuMasters’ Award for those pancakes, too. On April 2, Denny’s also introduced a new premium Colombian coffee blend and a limited-time menu inspired by the Star Wards film.]

Q: Why change a staple like flapjacks?

A: Most of our guest already thought our pancakes were good. We owed it to them, to take it from good to great.

Q: How much have you spent improving the quality of food?

A: We’ve invested a lot money. No dollar amounts. But a lot of time and effort, for sure.

Q: Where are you at with the “Heritage” store remodels?

A: To truly enjoy a meal, you have to enjoy where you’re eating. Our restaurants have undergone an aggressive remodeling program to be more modern comfortable and inviting. Our new design amplifies the idea of the next generation diner. By the end of 2018, we’ll have approximately 80 percent of our domestic system remodeled with the new image. [Editor’s note: The heritage design features hardwood floor tiles, contemporary booths and tables, and new light fixtures.]

Q: How is the year-old Denny’s On Demand program doing? 

A: It’s very encouraging. Denny’s On Demand was born out of our aggressive need for meeting the needs of our guests and future guests — and, feeding their stomachs exactly where they are with the convenience they now want and expect.  The response to this platform has been incredible. We now have delivery in over 50 percent of our restaurants. We’re over indexing to dinner and late night which are two very important dayparts for us. We’re over indexing to 18-34-year-old — very important demographics. There’s a lot more out there for us to get.

Q: Explain the Star Wards Solo trading cards and its tie-in to No Kid Hungry?

A:  We have raised over $6.3 million to this important cause. As part of the campaign, we’re going to give guests the opportunity to collect limited edition trading cards. Only $3 [for a two-card pack] with net proceeds of every sale going to No Kid Hungry. It’s a powerful way for Star Wars fans to experience the film in a fun way, and help in the fight against childhood hunger. We’re thrilled to give back in this way.

Q:  The new Denny’s commercial pays tribute to the famous card game that put Han Solo at the helm of the Millennium Falcon. It is a clever way to promote the trading cards — but a big departure to your normal ad campaigns.

A: For years, our TV spots have focused almost entirely on our food. The food has always been the star. We knew we wanted to make it a truly authentic Star Wars experience — one that would ring true to the film and legions of Star Wars fans everywhere. We purposely made it look cinematic.  For us, it was all about the details. The table was the exact match to the one where Han and Lando were sitting in in the actual film. There’s a ton of other Easter eggs in the spot. I invite you all to give it a closer look to see what else you can find.

Q: Most importantly, of the four new Star Wars-inspired meals at Denny’s, which is your favorite?

A: The Blaster Fire Burger.

Contact Nancy Luna at [email protected] 

Follow her on Twitter @FastFoodMaven

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