Denny’s CMO Explains the Strategy Behind One of the Most Popular Brand Tweets of All Time

To John Dillon, good content reflects good conversations at a booth

Denny's tweet made use of a popular 'zoom in' meme.
Headshot of David Griner

Denny’s is no stranger to the Twitter spotlight, but in all the brand’s years of slinging slang and making memes, it’s never had a moment like this week’s.

The restaurant chain posted a tweet Wednesday that rapidly eclipsed all of its previous posts in engagement and is now officially one of the most shared and liked items in the history of branded content on Twitter. With 85,000 retweets and more than 116,000 likes, the tweet—which used a recently popular “zoom in” scavenger hunt meme—has surpassed the engagement seen by Arby’s iconic “Hey @Pharrell, can we have our hat back?” Grammys post.

While other brands can certainly boast higher numbers, such as MTV’s Drake-loves-Rihanna tweet that scored nearly 100,000 retweets and Wendy’s charity-oriented 2011 tweet that was shared more than 180,000 times, Denny’s “zoom in” tweet still claims a clear spot in the Twitter brand hall of fame.

The darkly humorous tweet was created, as all the chain’s social posts are, through a collaborative effort involving the brand’s marketing team with South Carolina-based agency Erwin Penland.

Denny’s CMO John Dillon tells Adweek that this brand-agency partnership helps create the same types of funny, topical and occasionally odd conversations one is likely to find at a Denny’s booth.

Denny's CMO John Dillon

“If you look at the content across all of our social media platforms, you’ll see that the strategy is to serve as an online extension of what you would expect to experience in our restaurants: a welcoming, comfortable place where family, friends and complete strangers can all come together and have fun conversations,” Dillon says. “Our social media channels really are an online extension of the Denny’s booth.”

Because the brand’s social strategy relies on staying as culturally relevant as the (often young) people who gather at Denny’s, Dillon says his team and agency have to remain on the cutting edge of digital conversation. It’s an approach that can occasionally be polarizing, with the brand often occupying a strange netherworld between coolness and irony. Looking at a Denny’s tweet, one often wonders: “Is this supposed to look cool or stupid? Is Denny’s making a joke, or is it the butt of the joke?”

Like a dad lobbing awkward pop culture puns from the front seat, Denny’s has typically been at its best when it elicits groans and grudging high-fives.

That was certainly the case with its previous top-performing tweets, such as its hominy homage to rapper Chedda Da Connect’s debut single, Flicka Da Wrist:

While it was, at the time, the brand’s No. 2 most engaging post ever, it certainly sparked some eye rolling:

Similarly, the brand’s most successful tweet until this week was a 2014 ASCII meme cheering for pancakes:

Even those who shake their heads at Denny’s tweets would have to admit the brand always has a finger on the pulse of pop culture and internet trends. That’s a great point of pride for the brand’s marketing team.

"It’s critical that our content be current and relevant to the conversations that are happening across America."
John Dillon, Denny's CMO

“It’s critical that our content be current and relevant to the conversations that are happening across America,” Dillon says. “All of our content, including this recent tweet, is produced by an outstanding social team, which includes members of our marketing team along with strategists​, writers and designers at our agency partner, Erwin Penland, that are ‘always on’. The entire team is constantly looking for trending stories, popular memes and pop culture moments that have America talking and provide an opportunity for us to join in the conversation with Denny’s unique voice.”

Asked how the brand will learn from the “zoom in” tweet and build on its success, Dillon seemed to see the post’s success this week as less of an isolated occurrence than as a sign that the brand’s social strategy and tone are working.

“While we’re thrilled about the response we’ve received to our take on the ‘zoom’ meme, for us it’s just another great example of our social media team knowing our brand—and its audience—and using that connection to tap into timely topics that are trending online,” Dillon said. “Our team has had longstanding success with this approach and remains consistent in our online voice which is unique, slightly off-center and always fun, regardless of the platform.”

@griner David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."