Relevance and sinking restaurant brands

relevance, steak, Applebee's, Ruby Tuesday, Buffalo Wild Wings

Nation’s Restaurant News published this article about 5 brands facing trouble in 2017. It is a list of brands you could probably name if you’re familiar with the industry. In the article, Jonathan Maze cites traffic and cashflow as common problems among the group.

There is another common element among the brands listed and others that could have just have easily been added. Relevance. The way the brand fits into consumer’s lives. How they see the brand. The ways the use the brand. And it manifests in several ways.

Specific uses

Buffalo Wild Wings has done a fantastic job educating consumers that the brand is used for sports. Wings. Beer. Sports. Come here, watch sports. In effect, they spent millions to own a broad occasion. Much more common than a birthday, but still specific. Their ads and in store materials tell consumers ‘If it’s sports, be here.’

True, sports have become ubiquitous. But big sporting events are limited. But as ratings for the NFL have dipped, so have sales numbers at BDubs. And aligning wings with the event has also trained consumers that they only go there when they want wings, and that wings are all they are good for.

The brand has created a relevance problem by being so specific. They are relevant to a simple item, and an occasion the brand doesn’t own or control.

Brand fit

Ruby Tuesday has a wholly different challenge. It’s a brand that stands for nothing, despite many fits and starts over the past few years. RT latched onto updated Americana at a time when Americans lost site of Americana is. Though a national footprint, the brand never reached the national status of Casual Dining contemporaries TGIFridays or Applebee’s.

When grasping at nostalgia, which is becoming more and more common, there has to be a memory to draw from. Chili’s is attempting to create a historic sense in its latest campaign featuring visuals and music from the 70’s, the time of its launch.

Part of Ruby Tuesday’s challenge is bigger than its brand. People don’t know how they feel about casual dining. The entire category is at risk in 2017. Fast Casual has capture many occasions with their combination of similar quality, more novel flavors, faster experience and lower cost. If there is a sit down meal to be had, suddenly Casual Dining brands like Ruby Tuesday are competing with local brands or independents with higher quality product and often competitive costs.

The brand has to tell consumers how it fits into their lives. Buffalo Wild Wings, despite its current challenge, has done a great job of being clear about the intended time for a visit. When is the best time to visit a Ruby Tuesday? That’s not quite as clear.

Don’t muddy the experience

Applebee’s also made the list after a huge disappointment. Facing the threat to Casual Dining, the brand correctly concluded that change was needed. They opted to combat Fast Casual by upgrading their food with hand cut steaks and installing grills. They were able to convince franchisees and stakeholders to make this leap.

It sounds like the beginning of a successful case study. But as you know, it’s not. Relevance is the reason why. Applebee’s, despite challenges in sales and traffic was still more often used than most of it’s Casual Dining contemporaries. People know how to use the brand, and they offered several successful day parts.

This is why steaks and gas failed to draw consumers. That’s not the experience they know the brand for. That’s not why they go there. Applebee’s is not a steak destination. Steak brands are known for steak first. Outback, Lone Star, Long Horn, Morton’s. A commitment to moving the perception of the brand to a legitimate place for steak is much more than installing grills.

Steak brands feature steak. Applebee’s introduced it more like an LTO. Most consumers are
drawn to an LTO at a price they’re willing to risk. The perceived cost of a steak probably scared off those that were interested.

Author: Adam Pierno

Adam Pierno has a one-of-a-kind perspective on restaurant and CPGs. He investigates the connections between strategy, media, digital and business goals employing social media listening, analysis and traditional consumer research to find meaningful insights for brands thinking about their futures.