CMO Perspectives [1]
CMO Perspectives: Denny's Frances Allen

CMO Perspectives: Denny's Frances Allen

This interview is part of CMO Perspectives, presented by NRN in partnership with the National Restaurant Association’s Marketing Executives Group. The monthly feature explores how leading executives are navigating the ever-changing restaurant marketing landscape.

As executive vice president and chief brand officer for Denny’s, Frances Allen is responsible for the overall direction of the brand’s marketing strategies and initiatives, positioning, advertising campaigns and menu development.

She joined the Spartanburg, S.C.-based company in July 2010, bringing with her more than 25 years of experience in consumer marketing for some of the world’s most recognized brands. During her time at Denny’s, Allen has led the implementation of the company’s brand positioning as “America’s Diner,” which aims to better reflect the 1,680-unit chain’s roots and connect with its guests.

Prior to joining Denny’s, Allen spearheaded the introduction of the DDSmart line of more healthful products as brand marketing officer for Dunkin’ Donuts USA, where she also instigated the brand’s coffee taste test challenge against Starbucks Coffee. As she worked to grow Dunkin’ Donuts from a regional to a national brand, the chain was named Marketing Daily’s “Restaurant Marketer of the Year” three years in a row.

While with Dunkin’ Donuts in 2009, she was honored as BrandWeek’s “Marketer of the Year,” and last year she was featured in Business Insider’s “Game-Changers: 27 Brilliant Recent Hires.”

Before her transition to the restaurant industry, Allen served in several marketing executive roles with Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications, PepsiCo Inc. and Frito-Lay. She recently spoke with Marketing Executives Group board member Clay Dover to discuss the challenges of honoring Denny’s 50-year history while keeping the brand innovative and relevant.

What was your biggest surprise upon joining Denny’s in 2010?

I was very impressed to find such a passionate group of smart, savvy individuals who were so open and prepared to embrace the changes that we all recognized Denny’s needed. Any time you enter a new organization it’s a matter of learning how to honor and respect the company’s individuals and ideas while finding ways to make them better.

How does a 50-year-old brand stay relevant to its core audience while widening the target base to bring in new guests?

I have always stayed true to five core principles that I believe are important, no matter what industry you are in or what product you are marketing. Those five principles are: understanding our core brand DNA; driving that brand positioning throughout the entire organization; engaging with consumers in more meaningful two-way and not one-way conversations; innovating across all areas of our marketing plan; and reading, reacting and refining constantly to hone our approach.

Innovation is key, but learning from the risk we take and the new approaches we apply is equally important.

How has the Fit Fare program of more healthful items performed?

While Denny’s has traditionally earned a reputation as a place for affordable American comfort food, we introduced our Fit Fare menu in 2011 as a way to expand on consumer options and provide healthier alternatives to some of America’s favorite dishes. We received a very positive response to the introduction of that menu and will continue to look for ways to innovate healthful additions to this offering. That doesn’t mean that our more indulgent options will go away, but we do believe that providing balance and options on our menu is important.

Revitalization plan is ongoing

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I find it interesting that a full-service concept has a value menu. How has your $2 $4 $6 $8 menu performed?

We believe it’s an important part of our menu mix. One in five of our guests visits us to take advantage of our $2 $4 $6 $8 Value Menu, in addition to one in four Hispanics. It’s an important tool and powerful traffic driver for cash-strapped customers. From a business standpoint, the value menu has also been engineered with food costs and margins in mind while being flexible enough to keep the menu fresh and relevant. This menu has been a major part of our turnaround, and we will continue to evolve $2 $4 $6 $8 options to ensure we’re providing great variety and very strong value to our guests at all times.

How do you involve feedback from 250 different franchise groups in your decision-making?

As a heavily franchised organization, it is critically important that we work very closely with the Denny’s Franchisee Association on the brand strategy and direction. Our franchisees … hear directly from the guest and are invaluable about shaping the decisions for the brand.

Even our current advisory board structure was a collaborative effort with one of our franchise leaders, Bob Langford. He and I worked together to design a review body for marketing, operations and development initiatives that would help us make balanced, well-informed decisions in a timely manner on behalf of the system.

Does Denny’s credit marketing for improvements to its stock price in the past year?

Denny’s continues to deliver solid results, and marketing certainly plays a part of that. We believe our positioning as America’s Diner has been an important step in our branding evolution, and we have seen it resonate with our guests. We are encouraged about the progress we have made thus far, but we believe there is much work to be done in our revitalization plan.

How do you ensure that the brand’s promise matches the experience delivered in the restaurants?

Driving our brand promise throughout the entire organization has been imperative to the success of repositioning our brand as America’s Diner. From marketing to menu innovation and service, we made sure we listened to, learned from and aligned with our operating partners to effectively understand consumer insights throughout the repositioning process.

We continue to work very hard and closely with our operations team and franchise leadership on every marketing initiative in order to make sure we are aligned on what we are trying to achieve as a brand, addressing both the voice of operators and our consumer.

Clay Dover is the chief marketing officer at Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers. He serves as a board member for the NRA Marketing Executives Group and as an Advisory Board member of several restaurant industry organizations, including NRN's MUFSO conference board.