Denny's Pumps Up Social Media Efforts Amid Troubles


Social media is likely not the #1 priority these days at Denny's, what with searches for both a new CEO and a new CMO now underway and heavy investor pressure to rejuvenate the brand and jump-start its sales.

(On June 8, Denny's announced that chairman/CEO, Nelson Marchioli, who had survived an ouster attempt by an investor group in May, is now being replaced on an interim basis by board chair Debra Smithart-Oglesby. The chain's former CMO, Mark Chmiel, resigned at the end of last year.)

Still, from a marketing standpoint, it's interesting to note that the company is pushing forward with efforts to enhance its social media outreach, even as a new top-level strategic team tackles the job of reassessing the business's fundamentals.

In the last six months, in particular, the chain has been accelerating social media efforts intended to go beyond pushing out basic promotional/coupon offers -- efforts more focused on engaging fans and prospects with one another and with the brand, confirms Alan Miller, co-founder/co-owner of L.A.-based Filter Creative Group, the agency handling Denny's social media programs.



The latest effort, launched on June 8 and running through June 27, is a Father's Day "card maker" application being promoted through the chain's main brand and "Allnighter" Facebook fan pages and Twitter presences, as well as its email database.

Users register and create a card to email or print out for dad, and the card comes with a coupon for a free ice cream float for dad ... well, free with any purchase from the chain's new "$2 $4 $6 $8 Value Menu" or an entrée from its general menu. (The free-with-purchase nature of the offer is perhaps notable, given that disgruntled investors' criticisms have included charges that outright food giveaways, such as Denny's annual Free Grand Slam Breakfast day, have not succeeded in winning new, regular customers.)

As of June 10, more than 7,000 consumers had already created Father's Day cards, according to the chain. This follows a similar card-maker effort for Mother's Day, in which more than 13,000 users created cards in less than a week, reports Miller.

Denny's main brand Facebook page has attracted about 49,000 fans since its launch (along with an associated Twitter presence) in February 2009. But these general-brand Facebook/Twitter presences actually emerged from the success of the launch, nearly a year earlier, of a Facebook page and Twitter account that were created specifically in support of Denny's "Allnighter" initiative -- its effort to attract a young crowd with a hipper environment and special menu featured between 10 a.m. and 5 a.m.

The Allnighter Facebook page (which now has about 72,000 fans) has offered a variety of engagement devices, including mobile apps like virtual dancing video games and Webisodes featuring live-action puppet characters enjoying the Allnighter vibe. Allnighter fans have also been able to access personalized profile pages created by the animated characters, appearing on MySpace, as well as Facebook and Twitter.

Denny's two Facebook fan pages regularly cross-promote engagement and promotional opportunities, and Webisodes/videos, along with Denny's TV spots, are readily available on YouTube.

Earlier this year, Denny's' main Facebook page hosted eight video episodes featuring its popular chicken characters -- a follow-up to the chain's three Super Bowl commercials promoting its Free Grand Slam Breakfast day and Free Grand Slam birthday offer. One of those Bowl spots ("Chicken Warning") showed its chicken characters fleeing town as they were warned about the volume of eggs they'd have to lay to meet the demand for the free breakfast promotion. The video episodes offered humorous updates on the chickens' plight.

Denny's subsequently created "The Chicken Show," a series of monthly Webisodes on a "chickens" tab of the brand's main Facebook site that feature the chickens and their humorous interactions with a clueless fictional character, "Brian the Intern." A current episode, for instance, has the chickens begging for Denny's fans to volunteer as reviewers of the new Value Menu, because "Brian" has fallen gravely short as a reviewer (Allnighter Facebook fans are also being urged to become reviewers).

In April, Denny's also teamed with ESPN on both branded content sponsorship segments within the network's "Wednesday Night Baseball" programming and a weekly, online "Denny's Kruk Report," in which ESPN baseball analyst John Kruk blogs on baseball, food and fans and answers questions submitted by Denny's Facebook fans. Participation in the Kruk Report is heavily promoted on both Denny's Allnighter and overall-brand Facebook pages.

What's next? Miller says a July Fourth social media campaign/ promotion is soon to be announced.

Denny's sales declined from $939.4 million in 2007, to $760.5 million in 2008, to $608.1 million in 2009. During fiscal year 2009, its same-store sales decreased 3.7% in company-owned units and 5.2% in franchised units. However, 2009 fiscal net income was $41.6 million, up from $12.7 million in fiscal 2008.

In first-quarter fiscal 2010, net income was $4.6 million, versus $4.3 million in Q1 fiscal 2009.

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