Keys To Brand Revitalization-Alumni Advice

John Dillon, BBA ’93, senior VP and chief marketing officer for Denny’s, earned recognition from Business Insider as one of the 50 Most Innovative CMOs in 2017 and Nation’s Restaurant News “Power 50” list in 2018 for his work rejuvenating the diner chain’s brand. The former Baylor Chamber member also was named an Advertising Age Media Maven in 2013 for reintroducing Denny’s to a younger social-media savvy audience. 

I’ve been fortunate to help lead a journey for a classic, iconic American brand over the last several years. A major part of our revitalization has been the clarity we’ve established in who we are as a brand and mobilizing an organization toward a common goal to help us stand out in a highly competitive industry. Over the last several years, we have established the Denny’s brand as “America’s Diner,” a place that is truly always open—both physically and emotionally—in more than 1,700 restaurants around the globe.

Throughout our organization and with a new generation of guests, we have been successful in leveraging this unique brand position to help rejuvenate one of Americas most successful restaurant chains. That success has been the result of a brand revitalization strategy that has impacted every level of our organization, and one that has reinforced the importance of several areas of focus that are critical to any brand, no matter what the industry. 

Conduct a Reality Audit

You have to understand the public perception of your brand, and you have to be willing to accept the honest truth about what your stakeholders say and think about your organization. A few years back, we took a detailed look at our guests’ relationship with Denny’s, and we heard a lot of great things. But we also heard some things that weren’t great at the time. Our willingness to accept the good and listen to and aggressively address the not-so-good ultimately guided us to the development of our brand revitalization strategy. 

Know and Amplify Your Why

Almost every organization is great at telling you what they do, but many struggle to explain why they do it. Brands are like people in that your purpose—the reason why you exist—should be your foundation and guide every step of what you do. At Denny’s, we love to feed people. As a restaurant brand, “feeding people” obviously has a literal meaning, but we’ve taken it a couple steps further by striving each day to “feed” the minds and souls of our guests. This clarity in purpose is embraced by our CEO and through all levels of the organization, and it allows us to be focused on creating a fulfilling experience for our guests that leaves them in a better place following each and every interaction with our brand. 

Push for a Greater Good

The relationship your guests have with your organization in today’s world absolutely should be much more than transactional. Find a way for your organization to be a part of something greater—to deliver on your brand purpose and to help create a more emotional and personal connection. Many of my experiences at Baylor helped teach and reinforce this.

At Denny’s, we are committed to supporting every community in which we serve. Our local franchisees and restaurant operators are dedicated to supporting local organizations, schools and more, in addition to our successful partnership with No Kid Hungry and our multicultural scholarship program, Hungry for Education. Last year, we created Denny’s Mobile Relief Diner that allowed us to serve thousands of free meals to displaced residents from the hurricanes in Texas and Florida. This effort led to us creating a more permanent version of the mobile kitchen in the future.

There are many other ways our employees and franchisees give back for a greater good to feed people’s souls every day. We’ve found it drives greater pride in our brand for our guests and our team members as well.

Bring People with You

The best leaders are those who build and embrace the collective strength of a unified team. Ideas and inspiration can come from anywhere and anyone. I would encourage every organization to develop teams that are diverse in multiple ways, tapping into the backgrounds, experiences and perspectives from as many different people as possible.

As the CMO of Denny’s, my role is to communicate the vision, ensure that everyone is clear on the objectives, and support and encourage input and creativity from the various teams involved. By having a culture that fosters and embraces teamwork and enables ideas to come from anywhere, you’ll be incredibly surprised at what you can accomplish.

Mix in Some Disruption

In today’s marketing, you must be innovative and try things differently. While some may say today’s marketing is more complex, there is a freedom in the complexity that creates ways to work within your brand voice to try new things. Good marketing is truly a mix of art and science, but great marketing still relies on some degree of gut. Use some of that freedom to push the envelope a bit. Some of our best successes at Denny’s have come from pushing things more than we were originally comfortable with, and that courage has rallied our system behind some important initiatives that have helped results.

For more on John Dillon, visit Baylor Proud at and search Denny’s CMO. Follow Denny’s on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.