Applebee's Hopes New Marketer Can Re-energize Chain

Rebeca Johnson Brings Know-how From Brinker, PepsiCo, but Troubled Casual Dining Sector Won't Be a Piece of Cake

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CHICAGO ( -- Applebee's, the biggest player in the casual-dining sector, said Rebeca M. Johnson is taking the marketing reins as senior VP-marketing.
Rebeca Johnson
Rebeca Johnson

Ms. Johnson is ending a very brief tenure at Blockbuster, which only tapped her as chief marketing officer in July. She'll begin work at Applebee's Dec. 1.

Stints at Brinker, PepsiCo
Ms. Johnson brings a wealth of food-marketing experience to the position. Prior to Blockbuster, she was chief global brand development and marketing officer for Brinker International, which is the parent of Chili's, Macaroni Grill, Maggiano's and On the Border. She was also at PepsiCo as general manager and VP-Frito Lay, North America, with responsibility for growing the $3.8 billion Doritos and Cheetos businesses.

"We are excited to have a marketing professional of Becky's caliber join Applebee's," Mike Archer, Applebee's president, said in a statement. "Throughout her career she has driven profitable growth at leading restaurant and retail brands. I am confident she can do the same for Applebee's as we embark upon a multi-year, multi-faceted strategic revitalization of the brand."

According to the company, Ms. Johnson will lead consumer insights, advertising, innovation and brand marketing, among other duties. She is charged with re-energizing the Applebee's brand, and rebuilding same-store sales momentum through a "focus on new, craveable grill and bar food that differentiates the brand from competitors."

Casual dining goes cold
It's a tall order. Casual dining has been eating fast food's dust all year, and analysts expect sales deceleration to continue. And while McDonald's and Burger King both posted third-quarter same-store sales increases of more than 4%, Cheesecake Factory's comparable store sales were down 5%. Applebee's third-quarter same-store sales, meanwhile, were down 3%. The company cited declines in consumer spending, as well as a tepid response to its value promotions.

Moving forward, Applebee's has promised "additional brand revitalization" and "enhanced value offerings," such as the two dinners for $20 promotion, which began in October. New menu items are planned for January rollout, and the company will stick with the "It's a whole new neighborhood" campaign.

The company's marketing has also been something of a muddle. Much-smaller IHOP agreed to acquire Applebee's last year, and the combined company has changed its name to Dine Equity. Ms. Johnson replaces George Williams, who left in March after serving for just four months as chief marketer. His primary achievement was a campaign, via agency McCann Erickson, with a talking apple voiced by actress Wanda Sykes. But the spots failed to drive sales, and the campaign was pulled swiftly.

According to TNS Media Intelligence, the chain's measured-media spending fell in 2007, to $168 million from $174 million in 2006.
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