In its latest marketing campaign, the casual-dining juggernaut released a quartet of premium Saucy Glosses in chicken wing sauce flavors.

Applebee’s is going after date night. On July 29, the brand launched a multi-pronged campaign centered around four wing-flavored lip glosses. Applebee’s Saucy Glosses were released in tandem with a new single, “Taste My Face,” and accompanying music video, directed by Hannah Lux Davis, whose portfolio includes such hits as Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next,” and Saweetie’s “Closer.”

The campaign was timed to coincide with National Chicken Wing Day and National Lip Gloss Day (both July 29) while also capitalizing on pent-up demand for socializing—and dating—after two-plus years of on-again, off-again coronavirus spikes.

To create the signature Saucy Glosses, Applebee’s teamed up with Winky Lux, a clean, carbon-neutral skincare brand known for playful products like Confetti pH Lip Balm and Cheeky Rose Blush. Clocking in at $18 each or $65 for a “four-piece combo,” the Saucy Gloss line includes four flavors: Get Me Hot Buffalo, Sweet Chile Kiss, Be My Honey Pepper, and Honey BBQ-T.

This isn’t the first time the border between restaurant and cosmetics has blurred. Six years ago, KFC debuted an edible, “finger lickin’ good” nail polish. Last year, budget brand e.l.f. partnered with Chipotle to create an eye palette, lip gloss, avocado-shaped sponge applicator, and cosmetic case shaped like the fast casual’s signature brown paper chip bag. This past spring, e.lf. teamed up with Dunkin’ on coffee- and doughnut-themed makeup, including mini eyeshadows packaged like a box of doughnuts.

But these collaborations have occurred in the realm of fast food, not full service. Applebee’s entry into the space could be yet another testament to how rapidly the lines between the two service formats are fading even further. In a recent earnings call, Applebee’s president John Cywinski said the brand had never been closer to limited service than its current positioning, thanks to Covid-spurred adaptations and an increasingly younger consumer base.

For Applebee’s, the crossover is good for business. Not only did the brand finish No. 1 in the most recent FSR 50 report, it’s also surpassing pre-pandemic levels, with same-store sales up 6.2 percent in the 2021 fiscal year compared to 2019. In that same year, average weekly sales hit $50,500—its best performance since parent Dine Brands was formed some 15 years ago. The momentum continued into the first quarter of 2022, with same-store sales up 14.3 percent compared to the previous year, representing the brand’s fifth consecutive quarter of positive growth.

The Saucy Glosses follow other initiatives meant to get consumers out and about. In May, Applebee’s reintroduced its Dinner and a Movie special, in which guests receive a free ticket to Top Gun: Maverick with a $25 purchase (the brand ran a similar deal for Disney’s Jungle Cruise last summer). The next month, the brand offered half-off on select appetizers for late-night dining—perhaps paving the way for its date night push.

For as irreverent as wing-themed beauty products might appear, chief marketing officer Joel Yashinsky says Saucy Gloss was a campaign the brand took very seriously and one that required no small amount of legwork for Applebee’s and its agency of record, Grey, which first floated the idea.

That said, Yashinsky and other company leaders hope consumers find Saucy Gloss to be a fun commodity and a natural extension of the Applebee’s brand.

Gold Gloss

Applebee’s agency of record, Grey, first pitched the Saucy Gloss. Then the brand partnered with makeup line, Winky Lux, to bring it to life.

FSR: Applebee’s has always positioned itself as a neighborhood grill, but why does this new marketing campaign zero in on the date-night occasion? 

Joel Yashinsky: Date night at Applebee’s happens every night, and we’re really proud to facilitate everything from first dates to anniversary celebrations. So the fact that we were able to tie in one of our iconic menu items—our Boneless Buffalo Wings—and their great sauces to bring some fun to date night really makes sense for us. I think from a brand standpoint, date night and Applebee’s go really well together, and I think we found an opportunity to have some fun in a way that would be really engaging for our fans and our guests. So we’re really happy to bring this to life. It’s a lot of fun with the music video and obviously with the products themselves. 

Why lip gloss specifically, when there are other products associated with date night?

Our agency, Grey, presented the idea. People tend to get a little messy with our wings and sauces, and people love the taste and the flavor. So it just made sense from a fun standpoint, and we thought it connected with who our brand is and what these products are. Tying in the flavor and the aroma of our bonus wing sauce brings the experience forward in a different manner. It’s a natural, iconic sort of match. 

In Applebee’s most recent investor call, Dine Brands president John Cywinski said the brand was as close to quick service as it had ever been due to pandemic-related pivots and its consumer base skewing younger. Are initiatives like the Saucy Gloss an opportunity to grab Gen Z consumers? Are you targeting specifically a certain demographic?

We welcome all age groups, but past the really difficult stages of the pandemic, our demographic has become younger and nearly 80 percent of all of our visits come from either Millennials, Gen X, or Gen Z. There is obviously an opportunity to focus on the younger demographic at times. This fits in their sweet spot in a way that is natural and fulfilling. And so we think that it’s a great combination to, to reach a little bit of the younger demographic.

A number of cosmetic companies make lip glosses; why did you collaborate with a premium brand and Winky Lux in particular? 

We took this seriously. These products were tested. They were brought forward in a way that was trying to be substantial. Winky Lux is a fun and engaging brand—like we are. We thought it was a really great match, and they were excited to work with us. And so we thought, if we’re going to do it, let’s do it right. This type of extension for the brand is natural, but it was also important for us to be with a partner that took their positions or their roles as seriously as we do but also with a wink and a smile and focused on the overall engagement.

Did you do consumer focus groups ahead of time? How did people react?

Well, it’s been really kept pretty quiet. We’ve certainly launched this with a bit of a surprise with July 29th being the combination of National Lip Gloss Day and National Chicken Wing Day. It all comes together with beautiful timing for us. But we have had a number of folks who have tried them, and each Saucy Gloss has its own favorite flavor, aroma, and taste to it. So it’s been great because we’ve seen people find their own unique flavor that fits their personality, between the color and the flavor.

Tell me more about why a music video was incorporated into the launch?

The idea of a song tied to this was always part of it. The insight being that people were looking forward to kissing once again. Some of the great creative work that Grey developed around this was based off of the song they created. That really captured the essence of what the experience and the product is about. Tying that together with a great music video that is very catchy and stands on its own as a song, brings the whole experience to life at a new level. Like we wanted to go all in. We didn’t want to just come out with a product that maybe makes sense with one of our menu items; we wanted to really take it to the, to the full extent of engaging our guests. The video is just one of those elements. 

We also made sure to find the actors, actresses, and dancers in the video who were actually single. And we provide their links so you can connect with them on social media, because this is really about how to connect that first date again and find someone that you can really experience something special with, and we think Saucy Gloss is a special way to do that.

Is Saucy Gloss the start of a new engagement strategy for Applebee’s? Can we expect more unconventional marketing in the future? 

I think you’ll always find opportunities that are fun and engaging for our brand and for our guests. Whether it’s through a movie like Top Gun, a song like ‘Fancy Like,’ or an idea that ties into one of our iconic menu items, we’re always going to look for ways to engage our guests and our fans in sometimes surprising and fun ways that may be unexpected. And I think that’s something that will always be a part of our overall marketing plan and our activations. You’ll always see more of these types of ideas and opportunities come to life and when they’re the right fit at the right time, we’ll bring them forward in a way that our guests would expect from Applebee’s.

We’re obviously keeping track of everything that’s going on in the world, but all of our data and insights show that guests want to get back to normalcy. We want to help them do that, though we still understand some folks are a little bit more cautious. Our offerings through to-go and delivery are certainly part of who we are, and focusing on our off-premises has increased our business significantly over the last two year. But we also know from what our guests are telling us that they want to have those experiences again, and this is one of those ways to help them bring that to life, and I think they’ll enjoy and appreciate that.

Feature, Marketing & Promotions