Cliche or Comfort? Denny's Diner Ad Campaign Pours on the Syrup

Diner - Denny'sWith a series of new "dinersodes" -- television ads featuring Denny's customers seated at counters and interacting with servers who could be straight out of Waitress or It Could Happen to You -- the restaurant chain's ad agency seeks to connect with its customers who are looking for something more from their breakfast: friends, maybe, or nostalgia, or a cute nickname. One dinersode commercial pokes kind fun at the cliche of waitresses calling customers by diminutives. In this commercial, each customer has his or her own pet name -- "hon," "sweetie," "cupcake," "sugar britches." At the end, Denny's new slogan is invoked: "America's diner is always open."In a piece in the New York Times, Denny's chief marketing officer Francis Allen says that the restaurants are not known by its customers any longer as "family restaurants" -- "People think of the brand as a diner, with great comfort food at a great price, and they feel that incredible warmth and incredible connection to the servers," she went on, describing diners as having a "soul that is very authentic, very warm, very accepting." The NYT, speaking through Road Food guru Michael Stern, is skeptical; shouldn't a truly authentic diner be unique, run by a local character, and have a regional and unusual personality? Can that be done at a restaurant chain where the menu items have registered trademarks?

And then there's the long-time association with a diner as, well, greasy and unappealing. This may be far less of a concern in 2011; for the past few decades, upscale diners have taken their place in hip urban restaurant scenes, populated by yuppie parents and their children in the mornings and hipsters straight from barhopping in the wee hours. I visited The Diner in Washington D.C. in its first year and it was full of beautiful people; according to Yelp, it's still hopping and trendy a decade later. Search for "hip diner in Manhattan" and Google will auto-fill your query. (Surely you know that, New York Times?)

Skepticism of diners as a warm fuzzy image could be disproved by any excursion through movie settings for the past, oh, 40 years. Some of the most heartwarming (and, of course, most chilling) images that spring to mind are set in diners. As Good As It Gets. Pulp Fiction. When Harry Met Sally. Just about any movie in which a character is running away, or traveling, or staying up too late for any reason, has a scene in a diner. We get diners; we love diners. Is there any surprise that Denny's shouldn't try to connect with our love and understanding?

Of course not. Whether it will succeed is anyone's guess; after all, Denny's is a bit too brand-name to truly succeed as an iconic but blank slate sort of backdrop for human connection, with pancake syrup and endless cups of coffee. I don't much love the commercials, finding them too peppy and manic; but, I'm not the target customer. I stopped going to diners when I stopped going to trendy bars until the wee hours.

In essence, this ad campaign is a re-branding, from a chain famous for greasy breakfasts and senior citizen discounts to a place with the caring, personal service and unique personality you might get at Cheers, or any other place that exists only in our collective cultural imagination. It's pretty certain your average freeway-exit Denny's won't deliver that atmosphere. But if we keep believing it's possible, Denny's may get the happy ending of its silver screen dreams.
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