All Articles Food Restaurant and Foodservice Q&A: Denny's CMO John Dillon on the chain's strategy and successes

Q&A: Denny’s CMO John Dillon on the chain’s strategy and successes

SmartBrief sat down with Denny's CMO John Dillon to find out how the brand stays on the cutting edge of marketing innovation while still keeping its longtime fans happy.

7 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Q&A: Denny’s CMO John Dillon on the chain’s strategy and successes


After being in business for over 60 years, Denny’s continues to bring in new customers every day and has seen consistent same-store sales increases over the last several years, and that success is due to a variety of factors, including new menu innovations, restaurant remodels and a robust social media strategy.

SmartBrief interviewed Denny’s Chief Marketing Officer John Dillon, who shared details about how the company manages to stay on the cutting-edge while still keeping its longtime fans happy.

What made Denny’s recent menu overhaul so successful?

Improving the overall guest experience remains the highest priority at Denny’s and is a continual focus for our brand. That includes several different elements, including how we approach marketing, as well as the atmosphere and our overall operations in the restaurant. We’re proud of every single area of our focus and improvements, and the feedback we’ve received from guests proves that they appreciate those efforts as well. Clearly as a restaurant brand though, food is at the center of everything we do. And, despite operating in an incredibly competitive industry and challenging economic environment, a major reason we’ve been successful recently is because of our ability to improve the quality of our food while still maintaining Denny’s longstanding ability to provide a good overall value.

I think it’s also important to note the role that our franchise partners play within our organization. We are tried and true partners with our franchisees across the board. Over 90% of our restaurants are franchise-owned and we have embraced the partnerships we have with those franchisees. Those relationships have allowed us to work hand-in-hand with our operators to ensure everything we do, including introducing new menu items and operational procedures, is executed consistently in our 1,700-plus restaurants. The impact of that collaboration shows in our results.

How have you gotten the word out about your new menu items and your restaurant upgrades to attract a new audience while still ensuring that you keep your existing customer base interested in the brand?

Denny’s is “America’s Diner,” and most importantly, we’re a brand that embraces the fact that today’s America is multigenerational, multicultural and highly-informed. We know that in order to be successful in reaching such a wide range of audiences we have to continue to focus our marketing efforts in a way that reflects the diverse range of interests and personal preferences of our guests. We are truly America’s Diner for today’s America, and we take great pride in that.

While we have a very diverse customer base, one thing they all expect from Denny’s is that our restaurants will always be a place where they can come with family and friends to enjoy great food at an affordable price. So when we’re making changes to our menu, it’s not always targeting specific customer segments. Across the board, expectations from guests from every generation have gone up over the years. Everybody talks about millennials, and we’re no different, but guests across all generations expect and deserve higher quality and higher value in today’s economic environment. We’ve embraced that and tackled it head-on. Our goal is to take that classic diner fare that everyone loves and expects from Denny’s, and work to constantly improve and update those dishes, either through higher quality ingredients or by offering our own unique spin on each recipe and the ingredients across our menu.   

For example, when we introduced our all-new fluffy pancakes — made with real buttermilk, fresh eggs and a hint of vanilla — the entire initiative wasn’t based on any negative feedback we received from our guests. In fact, most of our guests already thought our pancakes were good. But for us to deliver on our quality and value promise of today’s guests, we owed it to them to take it from good to great. So we reworked our entire recipe and the process of cooking them to bring America the best pancake possible. And not just better than other restaurants, but better than they could even make at home. Working closely with our franchisees and operations teams, our marketing team then set out to deliver that message through an integrated, multi-platform campaign that included various activations in broadcast, digital, social media and more.

Although it was one of the biggest product-based initiatives we’ve had in recent years, our new pancake launch was just one of the latest improvements we’ve made to our menu. When you look at the evolution of our menu, we’ve improved or changed over 77% of the menu since 2010, nearly half of which has happened in the past three years alone. Among those improvements include offering wild-caught Alaskan salmon, USDA select 100% beef, seven-grain bread options, fresh-cut seasonal fruit and vegetables and a variety of healthier alternatives like gluten-free English muffins, turkey bacon, chicken sausage and so much more. In 2016, we also became the first family dining restaurant to commit to sourcing and serving 100% cage-free eggs. 

The improvements to our menu are also just one way in which we are improving the overall guest experience in our restaurants. With the help of our franchise partners, we have remodeled or upgraded nearly 50% of our restaurants through the end of last year, and that number will continue to increase aggressively over the next couple of years.

Denny’s has gotten a lot of attention recently about its clever social media strategy. Can you explain how the brand engages so well with consumers?

All restaurant brands face marketing challenges when you pair the fact that the restaurant industry is one that is very crowded and competitive, and the fact that today’s consumers are evaluating their options more carefully when it comes to how they spend money. Your marketing approach also has to take into account that consumers are also more aware of when they are being marketed to, and for many that can be something that makes them tune out your message — unless it’s engaging and relevant for that individual.

At Denny’s, we understand that any marketing effort, including social media, needs to be focused on engaging and connecting with a customer base that has more advertising coming at them than ever before. But if it isn’t genuine and true to your brand voice, it won’t be authentic and truly stand out. 

In our case, our social voice is a laser-sharp digital amplification of our brand voice, and it’s caught on incredibly well. We’ve spent a tremendous amount of time and effort developing that online voice, yet it’s also one that comes naturally for the Denny’s brand. In short, that strategy behind our social voice is simply to bring the diner experience and the interactions that happen in a diner booth to life in the digital world. Just like a Denny’s restaurant, our social media channels are a place where family, friends and complete strangers can all come together and have a fun conversation.

How do you plan to bring those marketing successes into the future?

What truly drives the success in our marketing efforts is our commitment to stay true to our positioning as “America’s Diner,” but also in Denny’s brand purpose. Denny’s is centered around the mantra of “We Love to Feed People,” a brand purpose that was created by our founder, Harold Butler, in 1953 when he started this company. That purpose obviously helps guide us in providing our guests with great food at a great value, as well as giving back every day in our communities with our efforts with No Kid Hungry and Hungry For Education scholarships. It also unites our entire brand behind a centered vision of feeding guests stomach, spirit and souls — from our corporate offices to our front-line employees. 

Our ability to unite around and deliver on that brand purpose, both externally and internally, is critical to our continued success in developing and executing marketing and business strategies to deliver on truly becoming America’s Diner. While we’ve had some success, we are fully aware we have plenty of work to do, and that work is energizing our marketing team, our operators and franchisees across the board.


If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s email list for more stories about the food and beverage industry. We offer 20 newsletters covering the industry from restaurants to food manufacturing.