After sitting out the Super Bowl this year, Denny's is diving into branded entertainment with an online talk show shot in one of its restaurants in Hollywood.
This first episode of the series, "Always Open," features guest Jason Bateman talking to host David Koechner, an actor and comedian viewers may know from "Anchorman" and "The Office." Future episodes will include Will Arnett plowing through multiple plates of Denny's food, Kristen Bell, Will Forte, Amy Poehler and Sarah Silverman.
The series was written and produced by DumbDumb, Mr. Bateman and Mr. Arnett's production company with Ben Silverman's Electus, with help from Denny's creative agency Gotham and Interpublic Group of Cos.' branded-entertainment unit Ensemble.
The series takes its name from Denny's new tagline, "America's Diner Is Always Open," a nod to the restaurant's long-standing tradition of being open 24 hours. But it's also meant to speak to the company's openness to creative ideas and consumer feedback.
Denny's has been using social media to gauge customer reactions to new items on its "2-4-6-8 Value Menu" and was looking to apply a similar approach to branded content, said John Dillon, VP-marketing and product innovation at Denny's. "TV and traditional marketing avenues are not where you can put all your efforts these days," he said. "To be truly relevant you have to think about things differently and challenge the status quo in areas like online content."
Gotham and Ensemble tapped DumbDumb partly for Mr. Arnett and Mr. Bateman's name recognition among Denny's target audience of teens and young adults and partly for their rolodexes of A-list talent.
"Denny's has to go after the young people," said Marty Orzio, chief creative officer at Gotham. "Having the celebrities and friends of Jason Bateman and Will Arnett helps us do that. They don't try too hard -- there's an authenticity there that certainly feels right. Hopefully, it'll change the way people think about Denny's."
But as serialized web entertainment struggles to find repeat viewership, "Always Open" will need to do a lot of heavy lifting to find the same kind of success found by brands like Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Ikea.
"Always Open" conveys the "feeling of connectedness" at Denny's without being overtly branded, said Scott Donaton, CEO of Ensemble (and former editor-turned-publisher at Advertising Age). "It's a great marriage of being strategically right on target but independently standing alone as wonderfully delightful bits of improv comedy," Mr. Donaton said.
"Always Open" follows a series of "Dirty Shorts" that DumbDumb created for Wrigley last summer, featuring Messrs. Bateman and Arnett in an assortment of "dirty" scenarios cleaned up by Orbit Gum. The shorts were minor hits by viral video standards, accumulating a collective 2.6 million views thus far. But Mr. Bateman said the shorts have become a helpful calling card for subsequent projects.
"It's the most efficient way to communicate our tone of humor instead of trying to explain to another actor or write it down," Mr. Bateman told Ad Age. "It also shows our peers and our friends that we're willing to put ourselves out there so when we ask some of our famous friends to come play with us we can say, ‘We did it, now we're doing it with you.'"
And if all else fails, Mr. Arnett suggested blackmail. "We have dirt on every single one of these people," he joked.
"If we don't before the project, we certainly do during the shoot," Mr. Bateman added. "For instance, nobody knows Kristen Bell is actually bald."
As for early learnings from DumbDumb's first year in branded entertainment, Mr. Bateman said trust and discipline are both helpful elements of collaboration. "Since this whole thing is kind of the Wild West, not a lot of people know what they're doing -- including us," he said. "But if you focus on it, you stand a good chance of getting what you want done. If you have fully-formed ideas, you can manage the expectations that come with a specific idea and do your homework. People get excited about following that and funding it and supporting it."