Case Study: Denny’s flips its audience with a sassy social media strategy

dennys social media case study
By Kerry Gorgone, {grow} Contributing Columnist

If your image of Denny’s restaurants as a place to take grandma for the dinner buffet, think again. The restaurant chain is re-inventing itself, led by a sassy social media strategy.

My compliments to the chef at Denny’s: the iconic diner chain has embraced modern consumers with a newly invigorated social strategy, serving up a never-ending buffet of shareable, bacon-fueled content (with a heaping helping of pop culture zeitgeist).

Creating an experience worth sharing

Companies hoping to make a connection with their customers have long looked to social media as a quick way to connect and inform. The challenge: creating content and an experience worth sharing (and then showing a return on investment).

As Denny’s has proven through their use of Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, and other channels, breakfast can be a surprisingly compelling topic.

“One of the things we try and do in our diners is feed people what they want when they want it,” explains Kevin Purcer, Senior VP of Digital Strategy at Erwin Penland, leader of Denny’s social team. “It’s why we are open 24 hours and why we have such a large selection of customizable menu items.

“We really try and live that same ethos in social,” explains Purcer, “and feeding people what they want when they want it requires us to be in the conversation when it is happening.”

Denny’s Twitter feed reads like a reference guide of notable entertainment and industry events from recent months: characters from the Scandal season finale replaced by strips of bacon; Jack Bauer leaps a breakfast counter to fight Russian bad guys; and in a clever spoof of Apple’s acquisition of Beats by Dre, Denny’s reports “BREAKING: Denny’s Buys Beets for $3 Billion, Makes Huge Salad.”

Instead of calls to action and campaign codes, Denny’s social content riffs on Lil Jon song lyrics, the World Cup, and asks people to “click the link below” by showing a picture of a sausage… link. (See what they did there?)


Purcer states that Denny’s aims to “bring the experience of a diner booth to life online.” Whether you’re visiting the diner during the early breakfast hours or a late night run, sharing a fun experience with friends and family isn’t complete without some harmless fun and plucky references to the world around us.

Mashed potatoes and mash-ups

Denny’s Tumblr offers its audience a stream of eminently shareable pop culture riffs, mashed up – or “hashed up,” perhaps? – with bacon, sausage, hash browns, and the rest of the breakfast menu. Notable events like Shark Week and the San Diego Comic Con received the Denny’s treatment with animated GIFs aplenty, alongside topical references to Kickstarter, nursery rhymes, the Atari 2600, Doctor Who, and more.

But has this youthful and plucky presence brought in more diners, increased revenue, or impacted other metrics?

“We are working towards measuring the impact of our approach on sales, evaluating different methods of incorporating social into attribution modeling,” Purcer explains. “We try to understand how it is affecting the brand: does our social audience have a higher favorability, willingness to recommend, etc.?”

They may not have the mechanisms in place yet for measurement, but the organization believes in the inherent value of connecting with customers through social media and content marketing. “We believe at our core that social has the biggest ability to impact brand health as much as any other medium,” says Purcer.

Data does show that the bacon and humor infusion have had strong, positive results. Follower numbers on Twitter and Tumblr have doubled and tripled, respectively, in less than a year.

In addition to drawing new followers and interacting with customers by sharing user-generated content, Denny’s has also shared laughs with other brands in fun and friendly encounters. A recent Twitter exchange found the Denny’s gang arguing with NBC’s Parks and Rec team over which was greater: waffles or pancakes?

dennysparksandrec

No doubt, Ron Swanson monitored this debate with great interest.

Hashteroids?

When Denny’s spoofed the Atari arcade classic Asteroids (with a ketchup bottle shooting hash browns, entitled “Hashteroids,” of course), perhaps they expected some retweets from the 40-somethings who still recall playing the game in person.

But as great brands do, Atari responded personally. Soon enough, a collaboration between the two brands ignited.

dennysatari

“That post inspired a full partnership with Atari in conjunction with our Greatest Hits Remixed menu module that launched this summer,” recalls Purcer. “We created merchandising, digital ads and even three real mobile game remixes of classic Atari titles – all with a Denny’s spin, of course.”

Social media history is littered with brands desperately trying to cater to younger audiences, either with awkward pop culture references, ill-conceived hashtags, or both. Misunderstanding the target audience is a classic mistake many companies will be happy to leave out of their #throwbackthursday posts.

But never has a brand been so deliciously devoted to its audience without constantly hammering followers with its officially trademarked product names, or scheduled Buffer posts reminding to consume and obey. The Denny’s approach is to share the same kind of content you’d share while you waited for your Grand Slam to arrive, or in between bites of some lovely, tasty bacon.

Stated simply by Purcer, Denny’s goal with its social channels is “to make people love us and make them hungry.”

Marketers are always looking for an angle to make content enticing, engaging, and irresistible. In Denny’s case, you can’t ask for a better secret weapon than bacon.

Except more bacon.

 

Kerry O’Shea Gorgone is a writer, lawyer, speaker and educator. She’s also Instructional Design Manager, Enterprise Training, at MarketingProfs. Kerry hosts the weekly Marketing Smarts podcast. Find Kerry on Google+ and Twitter.

Image courtesy swong95765 via Flickr cc

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  • Denny’s and Erwin Penland are making content marketing history right now, and it will be really interesting once the team has the metrics in place to see how all this is impacting the bottom line. I would think it could only be moving the company into the positive.

    I’m wondering, though, how this approach would work for others who are certainly going to try to copy this trademark sass. Denny’s is on a rebranding path as the “hip” place for that late night meal, moving from its image of the senior citizen Sunday morning breakfast spot. How would other businesses, though, with a more serious demeanor, say a bank, fare if they tried to be humorous on social media?

    I understand that it depends on the target audience, but Denny’s target audience before certainly wasn’t the envelope-pushing youth. It’ll be interesting to see if any other companies, especially traditional ones, take up this challenge.

  • Mark, Believe it or not,Denny’s is one of my favorite restaurants which I visit atleast twice a month. I really enjoy their food & service. I wish they get a license to sell Beer & Wine. That would be great!

  • Hey Kerry, this was a great example of Social Media done well! It’s smart, witty and engaging without seeming forced!

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  • Pauline Baird Jones

    That is pretty hilarious and clever. Love the pancakes/waffles exchange. Okay, that might change my mind about Denny’s. LOL

  • disqus_W4KjfaOksA

    Excellent post – I felt hungry reading it. It perfectly illustrates how social media marketing is NOT about hard sell.

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