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Denny’s CMO: Marketing includes listening to customers

Creative Industries
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The role of company marketing has evolved over the last five years.

With digital marketing coming into the fold and becoming an ever-growing part of a company’s marketing portfolio, there is a delicate balancing act for businesses like Spartanburg-based Denny’s Corp. to work between new marketing and traditional.

We had the opportunity to visit with John Dillon, chief marketing officer for Denny’s Corp., and asked about the marketing landscape and how things have changed.

GSA: Talk about the marketing strategy implemented at Denny’s Corp. What is it and how did you get to it?

Dillon: Everything we do at Denny’s, including marketing, but extending into all areas of our company, is rooted in our position as “America’s Diner,” which has proven to be a very clear and transformational North Star for our brand.

John Dillon, Denny’s Corp. chief marketing officer, said digital marketing has become a necessity for companies because of the different ways customers get their information. (Photo provided)That brand position came to life through a process that started a few years ago, when we were at a point where we had lost sight of who we were and weren’t offering products or promotions or an experience that truly drove the business; we had lost sight about what made our brand unique and successful since 1953. We found that we were starting to lose sight of what made Denny’s special to our guests and we needed to reframe the essence of the brand, and recapture the hearts and minds of working-class Americans.

So we took a lot of time to truly listen deeply to our guests, and to those that hadn’t been to Denny’s for a while, and we realized that being a traditional diner that everyone could enjoy was what made us special. Out of that, our position as “America’s Diner” was born.

When we talk about being a diner, we obviously mean that in the physical sense, but more importantly in an emotional sense. A diner means something slightly different to everybody, but what is common in everyone’s definition is the emotional feeling about a diner. It’s a place where people of all ages from different backgrounds can let their guard down and be themselves in a warm, comfortable environment. At Denny’s we combine that emotional experience with an impressive and newly updated menu and an improved more up-to-date environment—nearly 50% of our 1,700 restaurants have recently been remodeled--featuring classic American diner fare at a great value to offer our guests something truly unique to Denny’s.

GSA: Implementation of a marketing strategy can be difficult and involve a lot of moving pieces. Describe the Denny’s marketing strategy implementation.

Dillon: For Denny’s, we continue to be successful in our marketing efforts because of our commitment to stay true and centered in our positioning as “America’s Diner” and also in our brand purpose. Denny’s is centered around the truth that “We Love Feeding People,” a brand purpose that came directly from the words of our founder, Harold Butler, in 1953.

We know that one of the biggest, if not the most important, factors for our continued success in developing and executing marketing strategies in a rapidly changing—and challenging—landscape is our ability to deliver on that brand purpose, both externally and internally. That purpose obviously helps guide us in the literal sense, providing great food and a great value to our guests, but more importantly, it unites our system behind a centered vision—from our corporate office here in South Carolina to our front line employees, including our franchise leadership.

It’s important to note that the vast majority of our restaurants are owned by franchisees. It’s a strong relationship with mutual respect between the brand and corporate leadership and franchisee leadership, and it results in a common vision and goal in our restaurants that have begun our brand rejuvenation. So as we implement new marketing strategies, they are always driven by our brand and marketing strategies and a clear brand purpose that centers our brand and ensures we stay focused on giving our guest the experience they expect from “America’s Diner.”

GSA: Digital marketing has taken a strong foothold on the marketing universe. Talk about the good and the bad aspects of fully embracing the digital marketing culture.

Dillon: I think we’ve been successful in our efforts in digital marketing because we clearly understand the audience, and we’ve aggressively targeted both the millennial and now Generation Z audience in much of what we do from a marketing standpoint. We have embraced their needs and the importance of communicating with them on their terms and in their terms. In the digital space, that means understanding what messages or interactions are most effective in getting people’s attention depending on where that message is being communicated. For some people, that might be pre-roll videos that run on YouTube; for others it could mean an attention-getting Tweet that references something in pop culture.

Like any brand in digital marketing, we face the challenge of dealing with an online world that changes at an incredible pace, but at Denny’s we embrace that challenge. Our digital strategy, especially in social media, is to serve as an online version of the experience you would get in an actual Denny’s booth — and our team has done a tremendous job in executing that strategy. Part of the beauty for us is it’s a strategy that builds upon our overall brand marketing strategy, so it feels more natural and genuine, which is very important for the target.

We are truly “America’s Diner” for today’s America. Today’s America is a multigenerational, multicultural, fast-paced, more tech-driven culture and that enables us to focus our marketing, especially in digital, in a way that reflects a broad range of mediums, tastes and content.

And it’s important to note that despite some belief to the opposite, more and more Baby Boomers and parents CAN be reached through a smart media strategy. You don’t have to always make one choice or the other when it comes to how you market in the digital space, and we’ve been successful so far because we found a balance. Continuing and optimizing that balance will always be our goal.

GSA:  What about other, more traditional forms of marketing? Are there some that are simply out of date? Are there those forms that are just underutilized? Why do you think that way?

Dillon: It’s a great myth so far that other forms of “traditional” advertising are out of date. The key is that any marketer today needs to adjust his usage of traditional media, using it smartly in a way that matches with the marketing strategies and consumer targets.

Many forms of “traditional” advertising like TV, radio and print can still be very effective depending on how they are used. There is still an audience that is receptive to forms of advertising like TV and radio, even outdoor or a well-timed print piece. But clearly more than ever, the advertising needs to focus more on connecting and engaging with the target customer, who has more and more advertising coming at them and more and more distractions on a daily basis.

For any marketer it is important to understand that today’s consumer is more aware of when they are being marketed to, and for many consumers, that is something that will make them immediately tune out—unless the marketing is engaging and relevant for the moment. As a restaurant brand, people will always eat with their eyes, so video is important. We now mix traditional broadcast TV with full episode players with online sites like Hulu, or on mobile and social partners. So our videos and commercials are playing in mediums that are relevant to the guest. We are careful that all of our touch points with customers work to support a larger strategy driven by our brand strategy and purpose, but we are careful in the way in which we interact with our audience in each marketing channel, tailoring the communications to fit each platform.

Q. Marketing continues to be a growing field for college students. Give five pieces of advice to aspiring marketing professionals.


  1. Understand how the whole business works – While marketing is often seen as the fun side of business, it’s important to understand that marketing’s primary objective is to make that organization more profitable. From finance to operations, legal to HR and everything in between, every person in a marketing position at a company should strive to knock down the perceived “walls” of marketing. They must understand how their role helps to support that objective, and the business results of marketing efforts.
  2. Embrace data and technology – Gone are the days of any CMO not expected to know numbers or financials. I was fortunate to spend some time early in my career in finance and insights/research, and it’s served me incredibly well. Technology and the proliferation of data in all aspects of marketing has now accentuated the need for marketers to be well rounded, and not just tolerate data and analysis, but embrace it and model it throughout their team and organization.
  3. Diversify your skillset – Today’s marketing professional needs to be a Swiss army knife; the type of person who may not necessarily be an expert on 1-2 things, but rather someone who is familiar with, or at least knowledgeable about, all aspects of modern marketing. So take a class on design, improve your writing skills, learn how to do an ROI analysis, dive into a coding project—make sure you’re at least exposing yourself to a range of marketing skills.
  4. Focus on your team-building and communication skills –The best marketing teams in today’s world are those that are effective in bringing together diverse individuals, with varying life and work experiences, in a creative and collaborative environment. As a student, you may think working with your classmates on a group project is no fun, but in the real world, your success and that of your organization will depend heavily on your ability to work with others. Work on your presentation and people skills by taking communication and public speaking courses. When in school embrace group projects and working with different groups of people – it’ll pay off later.
  5. Embrace the “fun” of marketing – there’s a reason people usually point to the marketing teams as the “fun” teams. Although I can’t promise every day will be fun, if you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, there’s something wrong. Figure out what it is and make adjustments. It doesn’t mean changing companies or jobs, but it may mean you’re not challenging yourself or being challenged enough, so strive to make the right adjustments. The best marketing jobs can be challenging AND enjoyable, and your co-workers and importantly your results will feed off your recognition of the ability to do both.

Reach Matthew Clark at 864-720-1222.

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