‘Continue to ebb and flow over time’: Denny’s chief brand officer on how consumers’ moods inform brand messaging

Illustration of a man doing a workout by using his laptop covered in a stack of papers as a weight.

Despite hopes for a return to normal, it looks like flexibility will continue to be key for marketers this fall. At least — that’s the case for diner chain Denny’s, according to chief brand officer and executive vp John Dillon.

Digiday caught up with Dillon to understand how he’s thinking about marketing now, what changes stay past COVID-19 and how the brand is thinking about working with college athletes.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Earlier this year, there was a sense that business would go back to “normal.” With the delta variant, that hasn’t been the case. How are you thinking about marketing now? 

“Flexibility” is definitely still a keyword in our plans. Because of the dynamic nature of marketing today, the ability and necessity to really turn on a dime sometimes [means you need that flexibility]. Right? We’re watching at all times for what’s happening with the COVID-19 and the variants and how guests are feeling in a restaurant. We really have been focused on consumer needs of value, comfort, convenience and reassurance. 

What do you mean by “reassurance”? 

Reassurance really emerged from the pandemic. What we mean by that is making sure that guests know that it’s safe to eat at Denny’s, all [the] cleanliness matters that we’re going through. And that was never part of our team’s plans before, but it has definitely been part of our marketing plan over the last 18 months. That’s one example. Another is value. Value’s not as important to today’s guest as it has been, but that will continue to ebb and flow over time. Really it is about flexibility. It’s keeping your head on [a] swivel and making sure you stay in tune to what your guests need and, in our case, what our franchisees need to run their business and run it well. I think that [need for] flexibility will continue outside of the pandemic. 

Building in flexibility into deals and having back-up plans does seem like something that sticks long after the pandemic. 

That’s one of the most exciting things about being in marketing right now — we have plans and we have backup plans. We have backup to backup plans based on what’s happening in the marketplace, what’s happening to the guests and the mindset of the guests and where the virus is at. It’s challenging, but also very exciting for marketers to really capitalize on the tools at their disposal today. 

How do you balance meeting consumers where they’re at — i.e. “reassurance” messaging — with brand needs? 

No matter what brand you are, people need to know that you understand their safety is a top priority. So many brands are spending time on that in various ways through the pandemic. My philosophy is this is not going to go away once we’re out of COVID. I think consumer behavior and expectations have changed. They’re always going to want to know that safety and sanitation procedures are being taken. This is something brands will have to work in their toolkit, so to speak, with messaging and push and pull depending on consumer dynamics at the time. So it just adds another element. 

Earlier this summer, the name, image and likeness ruling by the NCAA allowed brands to start to work with college athletes. Tell us how you’re thinking about that shift. 

When it first was announced, I think all brands, and I would say all colleges, all players, were trying to figure out what that means and what is the best way to enact the ability to use a name, image, likeness with brands. What we wanted to do is make sure if we did it, we did it in a genuine way with something that made sense for our brand and also made sense for the players that we work with. So it’s not as simple as just paying a player money but more of, can you do something that works for your brand and works for that particular individual and make it a win-win situation? And that’s why, and, and like I said before, how do we do it in a way that is a little bit different than what you see from others by creating this team [of athletes for Denny’s] and bringing people together, which is part of our branding.


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