Think of Taco Bell and it might bring to mind stoned college kids giggling over a Gordito Supreme. Shake Shack might evoke hip young professionals willing to splurge on high-end fast food. But Denny’s? You’re more likely to find your grey haired grandma tucking into a Moon Over My Hammy at 5 p.m. than anyone even remotely resembling a millennial.
It’s a fact that Denny’s appeals to the older set. Perhaps nothing’s more emblematic of that brand predicament than this coupon: It’s an offer for AARP members to save 15 percent on their entire check at America’s Diner, an offer valid in perpetuity, all day, every day.
Indeed, Technomic research has found that the experience at the restaurant is rated higher by Gen X’ers, Baby Boomers or “mature” customers, when compared with millennials who have visited the chain in the last 60 days. But while the olds may be a stable source of revenue, Denny’s has come to terms with the fact that it needs to start attracting a younger cohort to ensure future growth.
“Looking at the demographic data and the changing face of this country several years ago, we wanted to get out in front of it even more,” said John Dillon, chief marketing officer at Denny’s. “So we started target marketing individual groups like millennials and Hispanics more aggressively, naturally with our brand voice, making sure our relevance and significance with younger guests was where it needed to be.”
That effort is large-scale: Earlier this year, Denny’s announced expansion of “The Den,” a boutique version of Denny’s targeted at millennial customers, located near the University of Alabama and San Diego State campuses. That includes all-day breakfasts and a different, more modern decor that would “appeal to millennials’ tastes” without eroding the core Denny’s brand, according to an analyst note by Technomic’s Lauren Hallow.
On Twitter, where Denny’s maintains one of the zippier brand accounts around, the brand is handy with pop-culture references and cheeky brand-on-brand action. Its best-received tweets have been those that are inserted into timely conversations, like the introduction of Apple’s new, lighter, Macbook. The brand said it has seen 250 percent growth in followers in 2014.
proud supporter of the dadbod since 1953.
— Denny’s (@DennysDiner) May 5, 2015
our thickest pancake yet pic.twitter.com/JPVabVh1qB
— Denny’s (@DennysDiner) March 9, 2015
The brand is also pushing hard on what it perceives as millennial-friendly content: Last Fall, it hired the studio behind Robot Chicken, Stoopid Buddy Stoodius, to create an animated online show focusing on its “Grand Slam” menu item. The videos are available online:
Denny’s is also aiming squarely at what it considers the sweetest of sweet spots: millennial moms and dads. It launched a “DreamWorks kids menu” targeted at families with kids that grew up on digital. That menu features interactive content — that unlocks thanks to scannable codes — from DreamWorks films and series, puzzles and digital content, meant to “engage the millennial family during mealtimes.”
Getting younger people into its restaurants is all well and good, but it won’t add up to much if Denny’s doesn’t serve what they want to eat. Toward that end, the Denny’s marketing arm has begun to work more closely with food R&D. The result is a new “fit fare” menu that features healthier selections and new flavors, like Sriracha, added to the brand’s popular Super Bird sandwich.
Technomic’s Hallow wrote in her note that those moves, along with new offers like all-day breakfasts are the way to reach consumers between 18 and 24. Her company’s 2014 trend report fround that 42 percent of young people wanted breakfast-for-dinner options. “It’s an exciting time,” added Dillon.
As for the AARP tie-up, Dillon insists that it’s efficient and can work hand-in-hand with youth-focused efforts. “It’s the beauty of marketing in today’s world,” he said, referring to the many channels a brand can be in, and be a different voice on each. “It’s always part art and part science in marketing, but the science aspect is playing more and more of a role.”