Denny's on Monday took over a Hollywood tourist spot, Disney's El Capitan Theater, to promote its tie-up with "Solo: A Star Wars Story." While the chain usually touts its food in its marketing, this time the effort puts the focus on its promotional partner, an expected blockbuster coming out on Memorial Day weekend, and No Kid Hungry, an anti-hunger nonprofit that Denny's supports.
"We had the opportunity to work toward a greater good, the 'light side,' if you will," says John Dillon, senior VP and chief marketing officer at Denny's, referring to the "Star Wars" movies' counterpoint to the dark side of the Force. "That's what we believe sets this apart from a typical brand and movie studio partnership—using it to yes, drive sales results for both sides--but even more importantly use it as a platform to do good for society."
At the event in Hollywood, Dillon showed an audience the key ad in the "Solo" co-promotion, a big production spot called "Hand of Sabacc" about the card game in which Han Solo wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian. Here, however, the characters are played by two boys. The ad eventually cuts back to reality, where the same kids are negotiating trades of limited-edition Topps Solo trading cards, which are being sold at Denny's and online for $3 a pack, with proceeds going to No Kid Hungry.
"Consumers want brands to give back more than before, so being able to do that in a fun way like this, we're very excited," Dillon adds.
Denny's has helped No Kid Hungry raise $6.3 million since it began working with the group in 2011, though No Kid Hungry Senior VP Diana Hovey says the "Solo" campaign is the highest-profile project with Denny's so far.
The tie-up with No Kid Hungry dovetails with Denny's own brand platform of feeding people on multiple levels--not just physically, but also emotionally, he says. "We've been talking with Disney for a few years about working together, and when we came in with the idea of No Kid Hungry, that's when it really clicked," Dillon says. "It became very much a no-brainer for all of us when we came in with the idea of 'giving back to every kid in the galaxy.'"
Denny's has seen growth in the U.S. for seven consecutive years, with its U.S. same-store sales rising 1.1 percent in 2017. While its same-store sales have increased in 17 of the last 19 quarters, the growth rate remains well off the increases of more than 7 percent it saw in early 2015.
The "Solo" ad campaign was created out of Denny's creative agency EP & Co. To maintain "Star Wars"-level production value, "Hand of Sabacc" was shot on the same London set used for the film itself. Denny's also worked hand-in-hand with Lucasfilm and Skywalker Sound, as well as top production designer Neil Lamont and Oscar-winning creature and makeup effects supervisor Neal Scanlan, whose credits include "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" and "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." Epoch's Matthew Swanson was on board to direct. Though it's the company's first Disney/Lucasfilm tie-up, Denny's previously ran co-promotions with big-budget movies such as "The Hobbit" and "Fantastic Four."
Besides the commercial and the cards, the tie-up includes a "Solo"-themed menu lineup, drinking cups with Millenium Falcons for lids and social-media work. Dillon says Denny's worked with Lucasfilm and Disney on the menu items, which include the Lightspeed Slam, a Blaster Fire Burger and the Two Moons Skillet.
After showing the spot, Dillon invited the audience to a Denny's "pop-up" behind the big screen, where they tasted pancakes from the Co-Reactor breakfast and the restaurant's new coffee. The crowd was invited to sprinkle Pop-Rocks-like "Crystal Crunch Rocks" onto their hotcakes and then start them crackling with a warm citrus sauce. (Spoiler alert: It's pretty sweet.)
Dillon says there's more to come in the campaign, including on May 4, also known by "Star Wars" fans as May the 4th or Star Wars Day.
Denny's is one of six brands in promotional deals around the "Solo" film, along with Esurance, Nissan, General Mills, Solo Cup and Symantec.
Contributing: Jessica Wohl