Denny's CMO John Dillon On Feeding Consumers Shareable Content

CMO dishes on what the brand does to connect digitally with consumers.


Denny’s SVP and CMO John Dillon has a long history in the restaurant industry, so it’s perhaps no surprise he talks about the brand and its marketing endeavors with food metaphors.

In a recent interview, he discussed how Denny’s is able to engage an audience that includes both Boomers and Millennials and how it handles the challenge of remaining relevant to both. In short, Denny’s has succeeded in part because it is a brand with a clear sense of self, but also because it has fun and creates shareable content, he says.

The full interview follows.

1. What’s your background, and what brought you to Denny’s?

​I have been fortunate to spend a number of years in the restaurant industry, including about 10 years in various leadership roles at Pizza Hut, part of Yum! Brands. Immediately before this role, I worked in the sports industry on the team side leading marketing for the NBA’s Houston Rockets.​

When joining Denny’s about seven years ago, I was attracted by the power of this brand, with such strong DNA and affinity for the guests. The goal was turning high awareness and trial into more recent and relevant awareness and trial to drive our sales and our market share. And the ability to do that with this team here was very attractive.​

2. Tell me about the Denny’s brand.

The Denny’s brand is in a very strong place. Our “America’s Diner” positioning has given us a very powerful north star as a brand and has truly mobilized our system into delivering a clear and purposeful experience to our guests. We know who we are and the important role we serve to our guests in a very crowded marketplace, and that’s key to driving some of the results we’ve seen.

We’re a brand that’s all about feeding people – both in the literal sense and in the emotional sense – and the work we do in and out of the restaurant delivers on that purpose. And importantly, we’re having fun – our voice is a very clear one and allows us to have fun with many of the initiatives and programs we’ve been fortunate enough to launch.

3. Who is Denny’s target market and what is Denny’s doing to connect with these consumers digitally?

​Because of the nature of our business – staying open 24 hours a day and serving multiple day parts (breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night), we have multiple target markets. Our guests are from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities, and we love that as America’s Diner. While we’re targeting Millennials, we’re also focused on serving the needs of our Boomer population. While we’re addressing the needs of kids and families, we’re also focused on the needs of our multicultural guests in our restaurants. We’re a brand that, by very function of being a diner, has many diverse target markets and that makes it exciting.​

4. What Denny’s digital marketing campaign are you most proud of and why?

There are many of our team’s efforts I’m proud of and each of our digital efforts, and social efforts, seems to build off the last. That’s what’s sticking with our guests and consumers overall in a very positive way.​ Our internal team and agency teams we work with and the output they continually produce is what makes me most proud.​

5. What are some challenges the brand has faced in trying to remain relevant to younger consumers?

​Any legacy brand that’s been around for a substantial amount of time needs to be sure it continually stays true to the brand and its heritage, but also stays relevant and significant in the lives of younger guests. Denny’s is entering our 62nd year, and are extremely proud of our diner heritage. Yet our voice has been – and continues to become – even more relevant to the younger generation, which includes much of the work we’ve done with digital and social.​

6., Denny’s partnered with Atari on a series of retro mobile games and launched an ongoing web series, The Grand Slams. What have these digital efforts taught you about Millennials and what are some of your best tips/lessons for other brands looking to connect with them?

​The strongest approach any brand can have is staying true to themselves. Don’t try too hard. For us, the work we’ve done is grounded very clearly in our brand DNA.

For the Atari partnership, we were relaunching some menu items that were truly remixes of some of our Greatest Hits – Grand Slam, Moons Over My Hammy, our Super Bird. So a fun, relevant partnership with Atari and remixing some of their greatest hits made sense as well. And why not build it around an app that can lead to greater downloads and brand interactions while we’re at it, while still allowing the customer to have a fun experience and create a win/win for us and our Atari partner.

For our Grand Slams animated series, we’re bringing one of our classic menu items to life in a relevant, significant way – and in a sense of humor that is tied to our brand DNA. We’ve gotten high marks for not trying too hard and providing shareable branded digital and social content to our guests; being a part of their lives, versus asking them to be a part of ours.​

7. Some consumers online were asking for in-app order features – how does that tie into your mobile strategy?

​We are continually looking for ways to make our marketing technology space stronger and stronger. Again, the key is to make it relevant and a seamless part of the lives of our target markets. More and more of our marketing spend and focus continues to evolve this way, directed by the voice of our guests.​