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Denny’s eyes younger diners with video series

Chain the latest to embrace webisodes in marketing

Family-dining chain Denny’s introduced an online video series Monday, joining a growing number of restaurant brands that are using online channels like “webisodes” and podcasts as marketing tools.

“Always Open,” which plays off Denny’s new advertising tagline, “America’s diner is always open,” is an unscripted series of three-minute interviews that take place in a booth of a real Denny’s restaurant.

The spots feature comedian David Koechner, best known for playing Champ Kind in the movie “Anchorman.” The debut episode shows Koechner and actor Jason Bateman of “Arrested Development” fame eating Denny’s food and discussing such topics as primal-scream therapy, claustrophobia and magic elves.

See the video:

John Dillon, vice president of marketing for the Spartanburg, S.C.-based chain of 1,600 units, sees the new series as “a way to further our goal of reminding guests that we’re open to all types of guests at all hours and to all the natural conversation that happens at any time in our diners.”

“Using celebrities gives it a higher profile, but … the episodes are unscripted and have very real conversations,” Dillon said. “We want to increase our frequency with the younger generation of our guests, and we wanted to move beyond traditional media and interact with them where they are right now, on websites like”

“Always Open” will be distributed across and, as well as the website for DumbDumb, the digital-production studio run by Bateman and actor Will Arnett. The webisodes also will play on Denny’s YouTube and Facebook pages. Future segments will show Koechner interviewing celebrities like Arnett, Sarah Silverman, Amy Poehler, Will Forte and Kristin Bell.

Restaurant companies have turned some of their marketing budgets over to online series during the past few years. Starbucks supported the rollout of Via instant coffee in 2009 with a Web series starring comedian Erin Foley on a “Via-filled road trip.” Bonefish Grill’s first multimedia campaign in 2008 prominently featured webisodes.

Subway has produced online content the past several years on its website, including behind-the-scenes looks at famous athletes’ training regimens. The sandwich chain also sponsors popular ESPN podcast “The B.S. Report with Bill Simmons.”

“We don’t want to be … so much in the old-fashioned world of product placement but more the current-decade look at things, which is all about brand and message integrations,” said Tony Pace, chief marketing officer of the Subway Franchisee Advertising Fund Trust. “Do you belong and are you relevant to the story? That’s what’s worked well for us.”

Subway’s latest effort is its Fresh Artists program, in which two teams of student filmmakers from the University of Southern California won a contest to have their Web series, each of which integrate Subway, produced and distributed on the My Damn Channel website. The traffic My Damn Channel generates, as well as its commitment to show episodes of the student-created series at this month’s South by Southwest conference, ensures that enough people will see the work — and then pass it along via social media — to make the program worthwhile, Pace said.

“You have to make sure you generate a large enough audience,” he said. “Do you have the means to get it out there that makes a lot of sense? With My Damn Channel carrying the series and showing it at South By Southwest, we think those will get some good pick-up.”

Dillon of Denny’s agreed that brand integrations in online productions like “Always Open” require a “show, don’t tell” mind-set. At no point do the participants call out the food by name or say, “This program is brought to you by Denny’s,” yet the chain’s signage and a table tent for its $2 $4 $6 $8 Value Menu can be seen easily.

“We’re very careful to strike that balance,” Dillon said. “When you go with a medium like this, you can’t try too hard. But it would have been a mistake not to have our brand shown in the work. We were surprised by how naturally they interacted with the food. We were hoping for something like that but didn’t try to force it.”

At one point in the first episode of “Always Open,” Koechner feeds Bateman a sandwich, creating an awkward but funny moment.

By producing online comedy that Denny’s thinks its younger guests would seek, the chain hopes to establish a relationship with that generation as a brand to which they can relate on a daily basis, Dillon said. If Denny’s accomplishes that, it stands to benefit from young fans’ tendency to pass along funny videos to their friends.

“These episodes will be out on the Internet for a while, but TV is on and then it’s off,” he said. “If we make it entertaining enough, it’ll be a form of media they’ll seek again and again and pass along to friends. This will be passed on to thousands of people who wouldn’t have interacted with us in traditional advertising.”

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].

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