The Grand Slam breakfast has been sitting on Denny’s menu since 1977. Eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes haven’t changed, but the brand wanted to find a way to remind people that the Slam, along with a handful of other classic but oft-overlooked diner staples like Moons Over My Hammy, were still as tasty as ever. But how?
Instead of dumping a product past its best-before date to find something shiny and new for a modern audience, Denny’s decided to double down on nostalgia, announcing a partnership with Atari on a series of mobile games that combined classics of the two brands. Asteroids and hash browns? Hashteroids. Centipede becomes Centipup, and Breakout is now Take-Out.
The “Greatest Hits Remixed” campaign is the latest example of Denny’s particular approach to content marketing. While the company has continued to create traditional ads, it’s been conspicuous for the volume and the tone of its entertainment and social media efforts, crafting a brand personality that seems designed to appeal more to the kind of customer visiting after a night of drinking than the early bird dining crowd.
Over the last few years Denny’s has developed a unique, funny-leaning-to-weird brand voice that’s been expressed across a number of different channels and formats and that’s drawn attention from the media and from its growing number of fans. The brand personality was evident in the Always Open web comedy series co-produced with Jason Bateman and Will Arnett, wherein comedy stars engaged in good-natured but unusually frank banter in a Denny’s booth, and it was there in the creation of a menu around The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug movie. And the brand voice has perhaps been most . . . unleashed, in the brand’s much-discussed Twitter feed and its Tumblr. Though we’ve come to a time in our history when no human event is complete without a real-time marketing tweet, Denny’s has won fans for its cheeky, but never cheap, takes on the latest pop culture happening, news event, or meme. When news broke that Apple was buying Beats Electronics for $3 billion, for example, and Twitter exploded with opinion and analysis of the deal, Denny’s made sure to keep its fans informed:
When it comes to translating a marketing strategy, and a brand voice via real-time channels like Twitter, most marketers find it hard to get out of their own way–layers of approval, and the simple lack of understanding of what the brand voice even is, leads to banality, or worse. So how has Denny’s, of all companies, managed to become a weird sort of beacon of content realness? Chief brand officer Frances Allen says the company’s strategy is an extension of five core principles of marketing, and it’s helped Denny’s boost not only its cultural footprint but also its sales growth for 11 of the last 12 quarters.
By the time Allen came aboard Denny’s had already started re-evaluating its image, with hints of its new, more irreverent personality peeking through at the 2009 Super Bowl with a spot (Nannerpuss!) to promote a free breakfast “for everyone in America.” It also introduced a value menu to keep people coming back, but there was still plenty of work to be done.
“In 2011, we needed to get the emotion back in the brand,” says Allen. “It was clear that to our customers we were a diner, and a diner was a feeling, not a place. It’s where everyone was equal, a place you can relax and be yourself, a place to just park your title at the door and connect with people you care about or total strangers. This really started to inform our approach to everything–from our marketing with the America’s Diner campaign, and our products. That was a turning point for the brand.”
That “diner as a feeling” insight is where the now-familiar, casual, funny-but-not-snarky brand voice comes from. “It all starts with understanding your brand DNA at its core and the role you play in your customers’ lives,” says Allen. “You have to know why you matter to them. That gives you the platform or north star to guide everything else you do.”
As its Twitter feed demonstrates on a regular basis, Denny’s social media approach is heavy on offbeat humor and up-to-the-minute cultural references, from big news (see Apple and Beats) to memes that play in smaller circles (a recent tweet referred to “feeling so attacked right now”). It’s by no means a unique strategy–most brands aspire to play in that real-time, “conversational” space. But while some brand “conversations” can feel overwrought, or pandering, Denny’s frequently strikes the right, silly, note. The brand works with agency Erwin Penland (New York’s Gotham had previously run the social media accounts) and Allen says its impact on the brand’s connection with consumers has been huge. “Social media is that daily feed that reminds people that you exist and it has to be as transparent and true as everything else you do, or people will call you out on it,” says Allen. “Traditional advertising can communicate our brand DNA, we use social and digital to really make that daily connection.”
In terms of working with an agency on its social presence, Allen says there needs to be clear understanding and trust to make it work. While some things are pre-planned, like the iPhone Gold pancakes tweet, Allen says the bulk of the social output is left to the agency. “When you have that north star, they know and we’re clear about our values, what we stand for–when an agency and a brand understand the tone of voice to that degree, you don’t need regular meetings to talk about it,” says Allen. “I’d say half the tweets that go out there, I’m seeing them at the same time you are. CMOs need to trust their people and let them go. I think they’re doing an amazing job without my continual command and control!”
You’re not going to stumble upon that next great content marketing idea by playing it safe. Of course, you’re not always going to strike viral gold either. But Allen says the key to taking risks is ensuring that they are coming from a place that, again, is true to the brand’s DNA.
In 2012, the brand launched the web series Always Open starring comedian David Koechner, sitting in a Denny’s having random conversations with friends like Sarah Silverman, Will Arnett and Jason Bateman. The series was created through a partnership with Arnett and Bateman’s DumbDumb, Gotham and IPG content company, Ensemble. Allen said it was a pretty big risk, considering it didn’t give any guidance or input for what the funny folks would be talking about. The bet paid off.
“We only put those videos out on our site and on College Humor, and we did two series that got more than 10 million views,” says Allen. “It was content that was authentically about our brand, that our customers enjoyed and wanted to share. Interestingly, we got calls from a research firm asking what we had done to so dramatically change our score among 18-34 demographic. And this video series was it. So we learned that if you’re brave, innovative, creative but true to your brand, you can have a big impact.”
But Allen also knows not every swing will be a home run. “Some things won’t take off,” she says. “Not everything is going to set the world on fire and you have to be comfortable with that. What we make sure is that everything we put out there has that authentic Denny’s voice that doesn’t take itself too seriously.”
It’s great to have an established brand voice in your marketing and social media; but it will only go so far if that same voice is completely removed from your actual product. “Make sure every touchpoint your customer interacts with your brand, they get the same message,” says Allen.
It also means that every Denny’s marketing campaign ties back to the product. Restaurant movie tie-ins are about as common as a burger and fries, but Denny’s promotion for The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug last year went far beyond a picture of Bilbo on a cup. The brand created an entire menu around the movie. “Hobbits have seven meals a day, two of which are breakfast,” says Allen. “It wasn’t just about using the film to get attention for ourselves, it was about doing something really cool that ties directly into our products. When we told Warner Bros that we wanted to create a whole menu to excite our customers and movie lovers, they were thrilled. It was a win-win for both sides.”
The brand isn’t coming up with quirky partnerships just for fun. Teaming with Atari or Hollywood blockbusters isn’t about slapping a Denny’s logo on something that could just as easily be used by any other brand. “We’re not going to do borrowed equity for borrowed equity sake,” says Allen. “It has to have a relevance to what we’re promoting at the time. The Atari idea was done for a specific strategy, which is to reconnect consumers to some of our classic dishes. Everyone knows them, but we haven’t talked about them in a long time and these classic Atari games are similar in that way–everyone knows them and has played them at one point, but they’re not talked about very often.”
While Allen says the brand isn’t afraid to take risks, she’s also quick to point out that the team tries to learn everything they can from both success and failure. “If you take those calculated risks, you’ve also got to be learning,” she says. “I have an expression I use with my team, ‘read, react, and refine.’ We take these calculated risks, but we test and monitor it very closely and then take what’s working and what’s not and refine what we’re doing.”
This year, Denny’s is rolling out a restaurant redesign that better reflects that diner mentality the brand has forged over the last few years. In terms of marketing strategy, Allen says the company will stay the current, mildly eccentric course. “We have our tone of voice, we understand how to engage with our customers, we get better and better every day from the feedback we get from them,” says Allen. “We’ll just continue to innovate down this path, keeping up on what our customers want, where they’re headed on social and what they’re looking for in our restaurants. I have high hopes that we have plenty of room to play.”