For one reason or another, people associate Denny's with driving.
"We do have a lot of folks that, when they're on the road, they visit Denny's restaurants," says John Dillon, vice president of brand marketing and product development at the company. "A lot of our restaurants are on the highways."
The restaurant chain, which has 1,700 locations nationwide, is embracing that association this summer with its 50 State Challenge mobile app. Anyone who downloads the app automatically becomes a competitor in a race to check in at a Denny's in each of the 50 states.
The prize for the first person to make it to a Denny's in every state? Free Grand Slam breakfasts for life.
Users' racing spirit—along with special features such as coupons and menus—made the app a runaway success, Dillon says.
The app debuted in early June, following a year or so of discussion and development with advertising agency Gotham Inc. and mobile developer Rain. Dillon said the summer travel season was clearly the best time to debut a travel-focused app, and the launch coincided well with the restaurant chain's Tour of America summer menus.
Dillon says the aim of the app isn't to increase brand awareness. Denny's runs at about 97 percent in that area.
"It's about increasing relevancy with consumers," he says. "The app is all about rewarding them for their patronage in our restaurants."
Those rewards aren't just entries in a contest, either. The app offers notifications regarding limited-time offers, has a restaurant locator, includes a nutritional calculator, and displays special menus.
"There's pretty much [a Denny's] close to the majority of the country, but we want people to come into our restaurants more often," Dillon says.
The app also has special coupons that serve as prizes for certain social actions. Some are rather straightforward, such as getting a free soda or coffee for a first check-in. Others are a bit weirder. For example, if someone checks in at exactly 11:11 a.m. or p.m., he or she gets a coupon for free pancake puppies. (Think hush puppies but, you know, pancakier.)
The competitive edge
Though the 50 State Challenge app also serves as a general restaurant app, Denny's chose to put the contest at its focus so that customers wouldn't just use it once and then forget they had it.
"We looked at ourself and thought, what can we do to make our app stand out?" Dillon says. "We figured we'd get that immediacy of social behavior. Sure enough, that's what we've gotten so far."
The idea of visiting a Denny's in each state isn't a new one to Denny's customers. Dillon says he's seen forum posts around the Web in which customers were challenging themselves to visit as many restaurant locations as they could.
The official challenge started with the app's launch in June, and it's been quite a race. According to the app's public leaderboard, a handful of challengers have already checked in at restaurants in more than 40 states.
"There has been a quicker degree of response to this than we thought," he says. "The competitiveness is really coming through."
So what if the race ends next week? "It would be a nice problem to have," Dillon says.
The plan is for the 50 State Challenge promotion to run throughout the year. He says it will continue—the app will still track the states where users have checked in—even if there's a winner before then.
Dillon also says the Denny's marketing team will make sure the winner's check-ins are legitimate and didn't involve any tampering.
After the promotion ends, Dillon says the app could become a general Denny's app, but it'll likely become a venue for a new contest.
"The beauty of how we built the app is that we can evolve into different contests," he says. "There is some built-in flexibility. We're always going to be after how we can turn heads."
Dillon says he can't share download numbers for the app, but he does confirm that the interest has exceeded the company's expectations.
"We've gotten a lot of feedback from our franchisees and operators that they're seeing new customers in their restaurants due to the app itself and, quite frankly, more frequent customers," he says.
That sense of excitement may have something to do with Denny's customers' being drawn to the road.
"There is something in the DNA of our brand that speaks to going to all 50 states," Dillon says.
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.