Here’s what Applebee's is doing differently to get through 2020
Applebee’s was hammered by the coronavirus pandemic along with other casual dining restaurant chains, which were suddenly forced to rely on to-go orders that were previously a small part of their business model.
In mid-March, Applebee’s abruptly pulled its second-quarter media spending, recalls Chief Marketing Officer Joel Yashinsky. Then, it was time to turn up the messaging around carryout and delivery, and, eventually, to remind people about dining in its restaurants. By the time the chain was preparing to celebrate its 40th anniversary in November, it was back with more of a fun brand message.
Yashinsky is trying to think ahead to how the brand can operate following the coronavirus pandemic, including adding new items to the menu, while also helping it navigate the current situation with the help of $5 drinks and other offers.
Applebee’s was having a good start to the year, with 10 consecutive weeks of same-store sales growth and nine weeks in a row of positive traffic, or visits. Then, in one week in late March, same-store sales plunged 80.6%.
The coronavirus pandemic led Applebee’s marketing team, which works with Grey on creative and Initiative on media, to rethink everything. It couldn’t rely on hyping specials such as $1 drinks from the bar, since people weren’t coming in. Instead, it began selling $5 “mucho”-sized 20-ounce drinks in branded cups to go, in about 30 states where it can do so, and promoting offers including buy any steak entree and receive a dozen shrimp for $1.
“One of the key elements to the Applebee’s business is that we are a value-based brand,” Yashinsky says on the latest episode of the “Marketer’s Brief” podcast. “Abundant value and making sure they have a full plate for a very fair, reasonable and good price has always been part of our essence and that’s not changing.”
Before the pandemic, off-premise sales such as to go and delivery accounted for about 15% of Applebee’s business, says Yashinsky. After its dining rooms reopened in July, with seating restrictions in place, off-premise is now upward of 30% to 40% of the business, says Yashinksy. And offers are valid both in the restaurant and for to-go orders, which wasn’t the case before COVID-19.
Time to celebrate
On No. 19, the brand’s 40th anniversary, Applebee’s gave away wings for a year to 40 people who had posted on Twitter about missing their own Applebee’s birthday celebrations when plans were disrupted due to the pandemic. It also gave wings to another 12 fans as part of the #ABsYearOfWingsGiveaway.
The response was strong, doing better than the brand expected, Yashinsky says on the podcast. Applebee’s received nearly 5,000 entries in the 12 hours the promotion was live and reached the No. 6 trending topic spot on Twitter in the U.S. at one point during the day.
“We recognized the opportunity to try and identify what people had missed out on during the pandemic, and one of them was celebrating their birthdays at Applebee’s,” says Yashinsky.
The promotion included showing Applebee’s staffers singing for the winners in online videos.
Applebee’s is also working to determine the opportunity the chain has with two trends that have grown in the restaurant industry during the pandemic: using ghost kitchens to add capacity for off-premise dining and operating a virtual brand that is available only through a delivery service provider.
“I think we’re looking at providing as much of the experience and the menu items as possible from a ghost kitchen,” says Yashinsky. “A virtual brand may have a more limited menu, and the virtual brand may not be branded toward Applebee’s.”
Applebee’s same-store sales fell 13.3% in the third quarter and the level of decline was substantially smaller at the beginning of the fourth quarter. The brand is holding up better than its Dine Brands sibling chain, IHOP.