April 15, 2009
How To

Super Bowl Advertising: Lessons from a High-Budget Marketer

SUMMARY: Running a TV ad during Super Bowl can cost a mint. True, tens of millions will see your commercial, but will they act on it?

Don’t have a super-sized budget? No worries. Read on to find out how you can still use the tactics that Denny’s used in their Super Bowl media buy. Hint: they include an exciting, easily communicated offer with broad appeal. Also, see how they pulled off the PR blitz to support the ad, and follow their example on how to use a multichannel approach to stretch the impact.
The Super Bowl is one of the biggest advertising events of the year. Marketers spend millions of dollars to reach tens of millions of consumers. Super Bowl XLIII was the most-watched in history, boasting around 98.73 million viewers, Nielsen Media Research reports.

NBC’s asking price for a 30-second ad during the broadcast was $3 million, according to Ad Age. That is a large piece from any marketing budget, and it doesn’t include production costs. Can a single television commercial deliver that much value? Mark Chmiel, EVP, Chief Marketing and Innovation Officer, Denny’s, says it can. It’s all in how you use the platform.

“The funny thing about it for us was that we did not set out to buy a spot on the Super Bowl. We had this promotion in mind. We felt that it was time to have this mass trial, this mass invitation. And then we said, ‘Well, what’s the largest megaphone out there?’ It’s the Super Bowl,” Chmiel says. “It’s not a bad buy for that money, if you have something to say.”

Chmiel and his team used a Super Bowl ad as part of a larger marketing and PR effort to pull consumers into the nationwide restaurant chain for a free breakfast. Find out how the team successfully leveraged the ad and integrated it into a buzz-generating campaign to re-introduce Denny’s to America.

Masterminding a Massive Free Trial

Denny’s has been around for about 55 years and is a well-known brand. Chmiel estimates that about 90% of adults have visited Denny’s, he says. Such familiarity is a double-edged sword: “Those are all positives, but they’re also negatives because people say, ‘Oh, I already know you.’”

To reignite interest, his team wanted to introduce consumers to Denny’s newer products, such as express service items and new sandwiches. The goal was to create a campaign to get more people into the restaurants to see the products for themselves.

They decided hold a one-day, nationwide event to give away a free Grand Slam breakfast (two pancakes, two eggs, two bacon strips, and two sausage links) to every customer at every Denny’s location between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. No purchase was necessary. Take-out orders were not allowed.

“Our goal was to have a big party and have as many people as possible have a free Grand Slam,” Chmiel says. To accomplish that goal, the team decided to create a Super Bowl advertisement that would give the campaign a strong push. The trick was to time the event and its promotion carefully. Here is how they accomplished that.

Building Buzz for the Event: 7 Steps

Step #1: Estimate costs

Before deciding to go full-steam ahead with the event, the team had to make sure that giving away so many breakfasts would not be too costly. Denny’s was lucky to have many decades of in-store metrics to estimate costs and store traffic, Chmiel says.

The team based most of their estimates on Denny’s busiest days of the year. Factors they considered included:
- Material costs of a Grand Slam
- Number of customers on busiest days
- Table turn-around time (faster times equal more customers)
- Number of people purchasing a beverage (would help level costs)
- Number of people ordering additional side orders (also helps level costs)

In addition, the team had to deduct the revenue that normally would have been generated during the time of the event. “If in my normal sales I sold 20 entrees at full price, we then estimated that 95% of those people would now be getting a free Grand Slam,” Chmiel says.

Step #2: Prepare the franchisees

The team had to prepare more than 1,550 Denny’s franchises in North America for a surge of customers. Nelson Marchioli, CEO, Denny’s, Chmiel, and other executives, went across the country in early January to hold “town-hall-type” meetings with franchise owners in about 12 cities. Every franchisee was invited. “We really gave them the playbook, and we did it in person with them,” Chmiel says.

o Explain the estimates

“We had our operations and finance people take them through, financially, the implications of it, and operationally, how you should staff and what we would recommend, based on our projections of the busiest day of the year, to hit optimum capacity.”

o Explain the strategy

The team did not want to leave franchisees wondering why they should give away hundreds of free meals.

“We showed them that this was not a one-off, but it was part of a year-long plan of what we were going to accomplish, and this was the first building block. “

Step #3: Build early buzz

Because the team wanted to leverage the Super Bowl, the entire timeline hinged around the Feb. 1 game. About a week before, the team ramped up a PR effort to hype their Super Bowl ad, not the free breakfast event itself.

“We had multiple interviews for myself and the CEO, mainly on radio, but also in print and on TV, talking about ‘something special’ that was going to be happening on the Super Bowl.” Chmiel would tell interviewers: “Our spot’s on in the third quarter. I can’t tell you what it is, but it’s never been done before in a sit-down restaurant. Try to look for our spot.”

o Run preliminary TV ads

The team also ran TV commercials during the week before the Super Bowl. The commercials did not mention the event, but instead featured the Grand Slam breakfast as a regular product.

Chmiel explains that the intention behind the ads was to distinguish themselves from other breakfast joints that offer silly dining options, such as sweet concoctions topped with whipped cream. Denny’s breakfasts are real and filling, unlike those offered elsewhere.

Step #4: Super Bowl and post-game ad

The team ran a humorous 30-second ad on NBC during the third quarter of the game to announce the event (see links below). The spot cost a little over $2 million for the media, and not the widely reported $3 million. It was purchased as part of an NBC media package, Chmiel says. They also ran an advertisement during the post-game portion of the broadcast.

In addition to announcing the event scheduled for Feb. 3, two days after the game, the ads continued to challenge what Chmiel calls the “whipped cream” breakfasts offered by the competition.

Step #5: PR Blitz

On Monday Feb. 2, the day after the game and one day before the event, they put their PR machine in high gear. Again, Chmiel and other executives were interviewed on radio and television. They were picked up on national TV news broadcasts, The Tonight Show and other national outlets.

o Print ad

The team also ran a full-page ad in Monday’s USAToday (see creative samples below). The ad ran adjacent to the newspaper’s analysis of the previous day’s Super Bowl ads. Again, the ad was positioned against “silly, whipped-cream breakfasts,” and it brought attention to the free-breakfast event taking place the following day.

o Digital ads and social sites

The team purchased digital ads through AOL’s online network, Platform-A, which disseminated a banner ad to multiple websites. They also announced the event through several social media services in hopes of reaching the 18-to-24 age bracket, Chmiel says.

o Email list

Denny’s maintains a Breakfast Club email list. Subscribers typically receive a discount offer once a month for one of Denny’s newer products. The list was also notified about the free breakfast event.

Step #6: Damage control and coupons

There are bound to be a few snags during such a large event.

Two challenges Chmiel’s team ran into:

1. Cold feet

At the last minute, one franchisee started charging customers $1.99 for a Grand Slam. The team sent people down to the store to prevent customer backlash and bad PR. They stood at the door and handed out coupons for free Grand Slams, redeemable at any Denny’s. They also mentioned that the franchisee was violating an agreement.

2. Long lines

“We did have a free coupon in case some people felt the lines were too long or that they had to get to work…They could come back within the next two weeks to have a free Grand Slam,” Chmiel says.

Bonus incentives to encourage repeat visits:

Regular customers were given a coupon booklet during the event to motivate them to come in for a discounted lunch or dinner during the next few weeks.

Step #7: Monitor results, continue pushing PR

Denny’s gave away about 2 million free Grand Slams during the event, Chmiel says. In addition, the team saw:

o More than 50,000 website hits
o Mentions in more than a thousand media outlets
o Positive sales and store traffic since the event

o Memorable ad

Denny’s Super Bowl ad was rated number 8 in Nielsen IAG’s Top 10 Most-Recalled Super Bowl Ads (see links below).

o Positive brand impact

Denny’s realized a 39% net brand improvement score, the third highest of all Super Bowl advertisers, according to a comScore post-Super-Bowl Survey (see links below).

“We hit a chord with people and resonated with people on a sort of warmth and kindness perspective. We had literally thousands of emails and phone calls from consumers, even some that didn’t go to the event, thanking Denny’s for giving a free breakfast.”

“One woman sent us a note, ‘Denny’s, thanks for giving America a big hug when they needed it.’ And that’s pretty cool. We didn’t expect all that,” Chmiel says.

o More PR

Even after the event, the team continued to push their results in national media outlets, including Good Morning America.

Useful links related to this article:

Denny’s Creative Samples

YouTube: Denny’s Super Bowl Ad

How to Boost Your Super Bowl Ad ROI with a Clever Experiential-Plus-Microsite Campaign

comScore: Super Bowl ad brand improvement survey press release

Nielsen: Top 10 most-like and most-recalled Super Bowl ads

Nielsen: Super Bowl XLIII most watched game ever

AOL: Platform-A


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