Denny's Broadens Cause Marketing: 'America Needs A Hug'


Denny's is on an empathy mission. The diner chain has long supported veterans and hunger causes. But John Dillon, chief brand officer, says it is cruising into the COVID-heavy holidays with a somewhat different approach, broadening its lens on the causes that matter most to customers. He tells QSR Land what's different.

QSR Land: So veterans' causes have always been an important cause. What did you do differently this year?

John Dillon: Our tradition has been to offer a "Build Your Own Grand Slam" breakfast free to all vets and military personnel on Veterans Day. It's been popular, and we've typically gotten 100% cooperation from franchisees. 

COVID-19 and the economic fallout is hitting veterans harder. About 11% of the homeless people in the U.S. are veterans, and that's growing. Most people don't realize that. So instead of just the single Veteran's Day push, we're for sending our Mobile Relief Diner on a 10-day tour. It's an 18-wheeler with a diner inside it, which we normally use after natural disasters,

Using it to feed vets is a first for us. And we're partnering with U.S. Vets, the largest nonprofit serving vets, and its Veterans Village of San Diego. It's all part of this increased commitment. And of course, we're following all the COVID precautions while doing so, with many veteran volunteers helping along the way.

QSR Land: Why the emphasis on veterans?

Dillon: We're America's diner, and our guest base represents the soul of America. There's s no better representation than our nation's veterans. 

But it's more than that. When people are in trouble, they need more than having their stomach fed. Our brand purpose is about feeding people's bodies, minds, and souls. We do that in our restaurants every day, but we're asking ourselves what more we can do to bring that idea to the masses.

America needs a hug right now. And veterans need an extra hug.

QSR Land: Is breakfast a hug?

Dillon: It's not just about the meal -- although there's some magical power to a stack of pancakes, a couple of strips of bacon and a nice warm cup of coffee. It's about the impact and power that can have on somebody's day.

QSR Land: U.S. Vets is a very comprehensive nonprofit, and gets deeply into problems that might turn off many brands: alcoholism, drug addiction and mental health problems. Did you worry that customers or franchisees might push back?

Dillon: No. We like to help anybody that needs help. And this year, more than any other year, organizations like this need to be embraced. They need more help, not less. Our franchisees and employees were thrilled with the partners we chose. We believe this is the start of a broad partnership that we hope to expand.

But for our customers, we hope we are creating this residual awareness and shining a light on both the need and the good these veterans organizations are doing.

QSR Land: How charitable do you think your franchisees and customers are feeling right now? This has been a crushing time for the restaurant business. How generous is the mood for the holidays?

Dillon: They want to give back more. We just finished our annual "No kid hungry" campaign, and in a few weeks, we raised $800,000 across our system. People are very aware of how the pandemic is affecting children.

QSR Land: Dine-in restaurants like Denny's have been hit hardest.

Dillon: Yes, it's been rough. But overall, we've been blown away by the ingenuity of our system and the scrappiness of employees and franchisees. There are a lot of new initiatives, like curbside ordering, patio dining.

A number of our restaurants deliver groceries. We're even creating menu items, including some melts and some bowls, that are more portable and delivery-friendly. It's been truly amazing.

Like everybody else, we hope the future is less challenging, and we hope there's not a lot more to come in terms of the pandemic. But if it does, we'll be ready.

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