Right from the moment president John Cywinski joined Applebee’s last March, the brand took to the marketing front. Yes, there were issues with franchisee profitability and unit-level economics, and the chain’s nearly 2,000-unit base was ripe for retraction, but Applebee’s had another problem in need of quick remedy. The chain was suffering from one of the most trying issues for legacy restaurants: brand drift. It’s decision to pivot to a younger, more affluent demographic created confusion among core guests. Applebee’s strayed from the Middle America roots and abundant value positioning that made it such a community icon over the decades.
Among the many changes Applebee’s stirred over the past year or so, including revamping nearly its entire leadership, was to supplement the brand’s ad fund (it put an additional 4.25 percent national contribution rate into the mix) and reintroduce the famed “Eatin’ Good In The Neighborhood” campaign. The goal was to target routine traditionalists as well as value seekers who typically prefer casual-dining restaurants and Applebee’s in particular. What’s also worth noting is Cywinski, before a run at KFC and Brinker International, served as CMO of Applebee’s from 2001–2006, where he led brand strategy. One of his initiatives? The “Eatin’ Good In The Neighborhood” positioning. So this whole return to core values has felt fittingly nostalgic for Applebee’s in many ways. And that’s exactly the point. Get the brand back to where it was before the marketing ship set sail without a consumer compass.
Just to accelerate to the present for a moment, Applebee’s efforts have definitely ignited the top-line. This past quarter—Q3 announced in October—the chain reported its best sustained sales and traffic performance in 14 years. Flip the calendar back a year and same-store sales were down 7.7 percent after a 6.2 and 7.9 percent to begin the year. Now: same-store sales growth of 7.7 percent on the heels of 43 consecutive weeks of positive sales. To that point, Applebee’s posted sequential improvement in each of the past four quarters, giving it year-to-date comp sales of 5.5 percent.
“From a strategic perspective, Applebee’s has returned to its roots. We have embraced our core DNA as the neighborhood place folks come to connect with family and friends, and we remain fixated on restaurant-level excellence and guest satisfaction is our top priority,” Cywinski said at the time.
On February 4, Applebee’s unveiled its latest campaign, intended for all the “Runaround Sue’s” out there. The message is that there’s always an occasion, ballet lessons, working late, last-minute cooking, where you could use someone to do the cooking for you. It’s a push for Applebee’s rapidly growing Carside To-Go business (Cywinski was actually responsible for that initiative, too) while sticking to the everyday vibe and personality the chain wants to reinforce. The music is classic and the message straightforward. And it’s right in Applebee’s wheelhouse. At the same time, it highlights what’s rapidly becoming a booming channel (off-premises upped 37 percent this past quarter to about 10 percent of total sales mix).
Applebee’s new CMO, Joel Yashinsky, took some time to chat with FSR about the chain’s fresh campaign and how it’s continued to dial back the good vibes. He joined Applebee’s in January from McDonald’s, where he most recently served as the marketing president of McDonald’s USA.
Firstly, talk about the inspiration behind the new campaign, and how it came about.
While this ad highlights Applebee’s guests’ need for convenience and experience with To Go, it is really about the simple insight of providing a critical solution for our guests’ needs. While our restaurants provide a comfortable escape from the daily grind, sometimes they need an easy on-the-go solution. Through insights that our guests share with us daily, we know that this will be very relatable to families across America in 2019.
Given Applebee’s push over the last year or so to return to its core values, specifically the “Eatin’ good in the neighborhood” verbiage, how is this new campaign an extension of that premise? How does it fit into that positioning and direction?
“Eatin’ Good in the Neighborhood” means stopping by your local Applebee’s to escape from a hectic day to enjoy good food and drinks. By extending this notion to eating occasions outside of the restaurant, we’re filling a need for our guests who, like the hero character in the ad, don’t always have time for a sit-down experience but want to enjoy Applebee’s. We’ll even bring it out to your car.
If viewers got one message out of this campaign, what does Applebee’s hope that would be?
Applebee’s is here for our guests however and wherever they choose to dine. Through online ordering, the ‘I’ve Arrived’ feature and our Carside To Go service, we aim to make the To Go experience convenient and delicious. Whether it’s in our restaurants or at home, Applebee’s is there for you with the great food our guests know and enjoy.
During the brand’s revitalization recently, what, from a marketing standpoint, have you learned about who Applebee’s core guest is? And with that, how do you balance speaking to them with also trying to reach new consumers?
Our core guest is the key to our turnaround. We have been focused on understanding exactly who they are and what they are looking for. Applebee’s customers aren’t looking for niche trends—they are seeking an affordable menu with great food they crave, and a restaurant that serves as a break from the hectic world around them. Through our neighborhood drink of the month specials, as well as our menu items and limited time offers, we are attracting new customers as well as appealing to our core guests. We speak to each audience with a targeted approach through social content, advertising creative and paid media, as well as public relations programs that combined ensure we are reaching our target where they are, with a message that will resonate.
How have Applebee’s marketing efforts changed from a medium perspective. Are you finding more whitespace in non-traditional? Is it still about striking a balance? And how has the brand approached national versus local efforts?
We leverage a variety of mediums and marketing tactics to share our “Eatin’ Good in the Neighborhood” message with all of our guests. We have a powerful brand that resonates both on a national and local level, and we capitalize on that with our national TV, social media and PR campaigns. At the same time, we are deeply rooted in more than 1,700 neighborhoods across the country, and each of our restaurants is dedicated to supporting the communities they serve. They give back to their communities in so many ways and some of those include hosting local fundraising efforts for local law enforcement, schools and neighbors in need, working with national charities like Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation or celebrating local veterans each year with a free meal on Veterans Day.
How important has social become?
Social has become one of the most important channels for us to talk directly with our guests and reach new guests. We use social media in several ways—to spread the news about local and national promotions and events, to connect with them in a fun, interactive way and to communicate in real time with those who may have concerns.
Where do you see Applebee’s voice evolving next?
We are America’s kitchen table with more than 1,700 restaurants nestled in local communities nationwide. Applebee’s will continue to be the place to go for great food and drinks, in a warm and welcoming atmosphere, and we will always seek new ways to innovate, to make our food more convenient and accessible. We’re excited to share with our guests what we’ve been cooking up for 2019!