Hitting a “Brand” Slam
CMO John Dillon savors the challenge of elevating Denny’s brand
By Kevin Tankersley
John Dillon is quick to name his favorite item on the Denny’s menu.
“Build Your Own Grand Slam, of course,” he said. “Hearty wheat pancakes. Bacon, of course. Breakfast sausage and egg whites.”
Dillon is thoroughly familiar with that menu. As chief brand officer and senior vice president for Denny’s, product development and new menu items fall under his purview.
“Think of it as a CMO plus a little bit of extra, including relationships with franchisees, overseeing guest-driven technology innovation like our Denny’s on Demand platform, driving diversity and multicultural focus, and leading social responsibility,” he said. “But generally it’s the marketing role. It’s advertising, brand strategy, digital and social media, public relations, marketing partnerships, menu innovation… areas focused on driving more and more guests into our restaurants.”
Dillon was a double major at Baylor, graduating in 1993 with degrees in quantitative business analysis and marketing. He was also a member of the Baylor Chamber of Commerce.
He got his start in marketing with Pizza Hut. After a year or so as a financial analyst with the company, he moved into a role as field marketing analyst, supporting Pizza Hut locations in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana, and eventually moved to corporate headquarters. After 10 years with Pizza Hut, Dillon spent two years as vice president of marketing for the Houston Rockets before joining Denny’s in 2007. At that time, “the brand wasn’t in a great place,” he said.
“There was a lot of (brand) awareness and a lot of latent love, but traffic and sales were down double digits at the time,” Dillon said. “They brought in new leaders to help that turnaround.”
As he says on his LinkedIn profile, brand turnaround is one of Dillon’s passions.
“I like challenges. I like change. I like telling stories. I like the human side of marketing as well. So to see light bulbs go off with our guests and more light bulbs go off with our franchisees or our team members about what this brand is and how we can make a difference, that means the world,” he said. “We’re giving back in the community more and more now. We now have a much greater sense of purpose as a brand. Bringing all that to life was a challenge and to be honest, I didn’t see it all at the time, because we were just trying to get customers in the door. But as it’s evolved over time, one of the big reasons I’m still here is because we still have a big story that we’re telling. Denny’s is a unique brand and it makes people smile. It’s rewarding to be part of a brand like that, that can feed people every day, both literally and emotionally.”
Part of Dillon’s role in that turnaround was making sure that Denny’s social media platforms reached out to millennials, especially, and recreated the atmosphere of the diner as a community gathering spot.
“The diner was actually the original social network before there were computers,” he said. “People went to a diner to connect and come together and relax. And our strategy is to transfer that unique diner feeling into the social world. A lot of our content is about these random topics. We say we’re off-center and we have a little bit of wink and a smile. But we take care not make fun of people or attack other brands. We just think that there’s no need for us to go there. We have fun and do it in a positive, uplifting way, which ties directly into the essence of our brand. And that’s what I think has driven a lot of our success. If people don’t smile after seeing a piece of our social content, we haven’t done a good job. And when they’re hungry, more and more of them are coming into Denny’s because of it.”