Denny's Embraces Role as the 'Original Social Network'

Three Questions with Restaurant Marketer and Ad Age CMO Strategy Summit Speaker Frances Allen

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Frances Allen
Frances Allen

When Frances Allen joined Denny's as CMO in 2010, she had a big task ahead of her: refresh the Denny's brand and make it more relevant in a changing restaurant landscape that increasingly favored fast-casual chains, particularly ones whose images purported to offer healthier fare. In February 2011, Ms. Allen and her team launched a revamp that included everything from branded entertainment to new menu items. It worked. The chain in 2011 had a U.S. systemwide sales increase of 6.2% according to Technomic.

Ad Age caught up with Ms. Allen ahead of the upcoming CMO Strategy Summit in San Francisco October 16, where she'll be speaking. Here's a sneak peek at some of What Ms. Allen will discuss:

Ad Age: Why did Denny's revamp its marketing? Was the brand finding that consumers were more interested in fast casual restaurants?

Ms. Allen: Denny's...over the years had been concerning itself too much with the competition. We had lost our sense of self. ...For me Denny's owns a unique and competitively differentiated space, which is the diner. There is no other national diner chain, and Denny's was losing that identity...we were not building on the emotional attachment that people have with the diner.

We saw an opportunity to embrace who we are, celebrate what's good about it, which is that everyone feels relaxed and comfortable in a diner, and that frees them up to connect with people they care about. That gave us the opportunity to remind consumers about the emotional connection, but it also gave us a clear roadmap in terms of product development, operations and the look of the restaurants. It's like a North Star for us. We were missing a North Star.

Ad Age: How did you come to decide what the new messaging would be?

Ms. Allen: By talking to our customers, both heavy and light users, to better understand what their relationship was with the brand. [We needed to] understand what their needs were, why they went there and how Denny's fit into their lives. ...The messaging is easy from there.

One thing we realized is that the coffee shop was the original social network. We found customers went to Denny's to reconnect with people. We're celebrating the fact that we're the original social network and that gives us a lot of license in the digital space.

Ad Age: What were some of the most critical aspects of the marketing revamp?

Ms. Allen: There are a lot of things. ...Digital [and social media] was critical in terms of really creating that original network feel. It has been a very important way of engaging with our core target audiences, which are Hispanics, millennials, families with kids and boomers.

Product development was also important to reflect the diner's positioning. We needed a clear guide for product development. ...Pot roast, spaghetti and meatballs have come back to our menu. Limited time offers were important because a diner always has a special, and bringing really exciting limited-time offers or exciting news [is crucial]. Our position is classic American comfort food with a twist, plus affordability. A diner is always a good value -- it's affordable every day.

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