Applebee’s CMO on embracing everything from ’80s nostalgia to metaverse buzz

Linda J. Dodson

Last month Applebee’s unveiled its “Here’s to The Regulars” campaign, a series of 15-, 30- and 60-second ads that highlight real-life regular customers for the first time. Created with agency partner Grey, the campaign is set to the iconic theme from classic sitcom “Cheers,” which helps to position the chain as a restaurant “where everybody knows your name.”

“Here’s to The Regulars” builds on a year of marketing wins and financial bounce-back for the chain, which — like all on-premise restaurants — was hit particularly hard during the first year of the pandemic. It also comes as CMO Joel Yashinsky begins his fifth year at the chain.

“When I joined the team in 2018, we had to shore up the business and really establish the presence of the brand. Once we established and built up the brand and really solidified its standing… we’ve started to have some fun with what we do from a marketing perspective,” he said.

In an interview with Marketing Dive, Yashinsky detailed the campaign, how the brand handled going viral on TikTok, its plans for the metaverse and more.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

MARKETING DIVE: What was the thinking behind the new campaign, including using the theme from “Cheers” and real people in the ads?

JOEL YASHINSKY: In talking with our team members from restaurants across the country, we knew that there were great stories of people who love our brand, who visit us regularly, who connect with our team members on a regular basis. We loved hearing about these stories and thought there was an insight there that could really be developed into what we believe is an important element: people are looking forward to coming out of the pandemic — and out of the waves of the pandemic — and getting back to normal.

Music has always been embedded as part of our DNA in terms of how we communicate our brand. “Cheers” became a big hit in the ’80s while Applebee’s was becoming a big hit in the ’80s. There was a connection to what they displayed in the show and what we we strive for each and every day in the restaurant experience that we provide our guests, and so we just thought it was a natural connection.

Authenticity is something that everyone is really attaching to and looking towards in this specific time of where we’re at with the pandemic and everything else going on. People are looking for that natural connection and why a brand matters. These stories are natural, they’re authentic and real. From what some of our research says, people are looking for that authentic and real connection.

We had the big benefit last year from Walker Hayes [and “Fancy Like”], who happened to write the song of the summer in 2021 and continues to be a regular at Applebee’s. We thought we can expand upon that by having everyday people share their stories about why Applebee’s is important to them.

Speaking of “Fancy Like,” which went viral on TikTok, became a hit song and has since earned Hayes four ACM nominations, did you have concerns about tapping into a trend? What lessons did you learn?

YASHINSKY[The song] was so wholesome; the dance was created with him and his daughter. Our brand is a family brand. Our brand is about date nights; a lot of first dates happen at Applebee’s. It also opened up our thinking to really move forward into the TikTok-specific social channel in a way that has allowed us to bring forward new ideas. It actually opened our eyes to how we can become relevant and speak to a little bit of a younger demographic on TikTok while also making sure we’re leveraging up our other social posts.

Applebee’s last year launched one of the buzzier virtual brands with Cosmic Wings, then brought its Cheetos-flavored menu items to the restaurant. How does partnering with another brand affect marketing a virtual brand?

YASHINSKYWe have a great long-standing relationship with Pepsi and PepsiCo, and Cheetos is part of their portfolio with Frito Lay; It was a natural connection for us. We also had a lot of insight that informed us in terms of how popular the Cheetos flavors and the Cheetos products are right now. We work very closely with them on developing these products that we believed could work in a virtual brand — which it has for us — and we’re looking forward to continuing the expansion of Cosmic Wings in particular.

We also see the opportunity to leverage virtual brand ideas that may then come forward in a live presentation or in a campaign for Applebee’s. We’re continuing to develop the Cosmic Wings virtual brand, but we also had a great experience bringing the Cheetos boneless wings and some of those products from the virtual brand into our restaurants in December for for a limited time. We’ll continue to look and explore how we develop virtual brands and where we might go in the future, and how those also would then interact with the Applebee’s brand.

Last year, Applebee’s also experimented with NFTs as part of a “Metaverse Mondays” effort. How did that come about?

YASHINSKYIt was a low-risk, medium- to high-reward opportunity for us. But going back to authenticity, the critical element to this is that it wasn’t just a stunt or gimmick in terms of just an NFT that we put out there from our brand, but that we had that real world component as well. Those that were able to secure the artwork are then able to have the product that we featured for a year.

Bringing in that real world experience along with the NFT just made so much sense to be able to break through some of the the noise that was happening as NFTs were starting to garner a lot of attention and a lot of activity from a lot of different brands. Metaverse Mondays, which we created with our agency partners, is something that we’re going to continue with in 2022.

As we settle in to the third year marked by pandemic challenge, what marketing channels are becoming more important and which less so?

YASHINSKYCRM is an incredibly important element for us now and certainly into the future. We’ve been working and investing a lot of time and energy in terms of being able to better connect to our guests through different CRM channels and building loyalty through that opportunity. While we don’t necessarily have a specific rewards program currently, we are exploring and learning about that opportunity for us. We are continuing to leverage our email club, in terms of making sure that we’re providing more direct and one-to-one messaging to our guests.

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