Three Steps for an Applebee’s Turnaround

Applebee’s recorded a 7.2% drop in Same-Store Sales (Fortune) in the 4th quarter of 2016. With the end of Q1 of 2017 looming, my assumption is that it’ll be their 7th consecutive sales decline. With the recent resignation of DineEquity’s CEO and the hiring of iconic ad agency Grey, Applebee’s is no doubt gearing up for its attempt at a turnaround. Yet without three essential steps, Applebee’s will continue their downward trajectory.

Develop a tighter, more defined brand.

I’m not talking about a tagline like Neighborhood Grill and Bar. I mean actually define why you exist and your largest point of difference from your competition. When thinking about some of the brands in the casual dining category some have done a fairly decent job at differentiating to the consumer. Think Buffalo Wild Wings, Red Robin, Outback Steakhouse. Each brand has a theme.

What does Applebee’s specialize in? It’s not clear.

I’m not here to say that these brands are thriving and setting the pace for the restaurant industry, but remember that casual dining as a whole has had a rough two to three years and you have to give me a better reason than value alone for me to choose to dine at your restaurant. The brands above do that. This leads me to my next point.

Focus on your differentiator.

The brands mentioned above will always be on my shortlist if I’m thinking about or craving wings, burgers, or steaks. They deliver on what I’m craving and are established as specialized and innovators in what they specialize in. I can’t think of one thing Applebee’s specializes in. Nothing stands out for me. Even competitor TGI Friday’s while not specializing in a specific dish, is differentiating with its endless apps, which the company announced will be a permanent part of the menu.

Applebee’s is “famously” known as a grill and bar. So I was surprised when looking at their menu and there were stir-frys, pasta, tacos, and something called a fajita rollup. Hey, at least there wasn’t any Kale on the menu!. The menu read more like a Cheesecake Factory menu than Applebee’s. You’re a bar and grill. Give me fun, straight forward bar food. In today’s restaurant landscape, this would differentiate. I don’t want a caprese mozzarella burger from you, ever. Or a burger with an egg on it for that matter. Master the basic things that people love about bar food. You don’t even have onion rings as an appetizer!

Put the website to work.

Applebee’s website looks like it’s from 2006. There’s very little food imagery so there’s no craveability being created. The homepage isn’t responsive so it’s difficult to navigate to other pages on the website and the menu is filled with images of dishes shot at a distance, so it’s hard to see what a dish actually looks like. A website isn’t the most important channel for a restaurant brand but they need to improve the basics to get on the same level as their competition.

If Applebee’s takes these simple steps and give their audience a reason to come back and try them again, they have a chance to turn their slump around. It’s time for their people to listen to customers and vendors.



Exactly what is authentic cuisine today?

The word ‘authentic’ comes up nearly constantly. Brands have a pressure to be presented and understood as authentic. There’s a very good chance you will be disappointed by this article if you clicked for the answer to the title question. Because defining authentic cuisine is no simple task. There is no easy way for consumers to answer the question of what they believe is authentic. In fact, it’s easier to define what isn’t right that what is.

Authentic cuisine varies by region, nationality, experience and brand. If you grew up eating cooking from your family kitchen, a meal with the same name from anywhere else will seem wrong. It’s not cooked the way you’re used to, so something is off. This is why people endure ridiculous travel conditions to get home for Thanksgiving. Any other way isn’t home cooking; it isn’t the holiday.

Megan McCardle pulls the lens much wider in her piece from Bloomberg View. Tracing the true available ingredients and cooking methods of most common cuisines redefines most food as unrecognizable from the version we accept today. Not just inauthentic but totally different food.

If a consumer only ever had White Castle hamburgers, they would certainly not feel that Backyard Burgers was an authentic hamburger. Or any other kind except Krystal which is essentially the same thing. So, every consumer has a different sense of what an authentic burger experience is. But how does a burger brand define that when they’re trying to appeal to that same consumer? Because like brands, any cuisine is defined by so many factors and memories that it’s impossible for a brand to know what is right.

Natives of, or people that have spent time in a cuisine’s country of origin for example will be looking for certain cues about authenticity of the meal. There are ways around these. Pizza has found an interesting end around in the Fast Casual space which allows it to abstract authenticity with customization and wood fired ovens. The consumer is satisfied by controlling the experience and less focused on an authentic slice of New York pizza.

Is Olive Garden authentic? To an Italian citizen who travels to America, no. It will differ dramatically in most cases. It can’t be authentic Italian cuisine. But is it authentic in what the brand offers and to its core customers? As long as it delivers on the brand experience and expectation, it is. To thine own self be true. Every brand is struggling to be authentic; and in the logic of the Olive Garden example every brand can be.

More importantly, do consumers even care? There’s probably a reason most mass brands aren’t what we think of as authentic. Most people don’t care most of the time. A lot of consultants report that Millennials crave authenticity. Actually they want the right meal for the right occasion. Consumers are selective about when they want the experience they consider authentic. Day to day, people want what they know will meet their needs. Fast. Cheap. Flavor. Nearby. All things they can nail down. But authentic, not sure they can put their finger on that one.

Keep guests in your vision statement

Read the vision statement of some of the top dining brands and you’ll notice something quite odd. It’s focused solely on the success of the brand, and not at all on the people the brand exists to serve.

For example, Chili’s vision statement is “Chili’s love by 2020.” What on earth does that mean? To guests, absolutely nothing. Applebee’s is a list of corporate values. More of an appeal for shareholders than guests. Chipotle? “Change the way people think about and eat fast food.” It involves guests, but isn’t clearly about improving things for them. Panera Bread says “A loaf of bread under every arm.” Technically guests have arms, so we’re getting warmer.

The ideal vision statement is about the company and the specific thing it will do for customers to reach its big goal. Or at least a reference to what customers get from the brand that will help the brand get there. When the vision statement is solely inwardly focused, it’s telling. The Chili’s vision reads like the experience many guests have when they go to Chili’s; more about the brand moving customers than the guest’s visit. How do they hope to achieve Chili’s Love? Also, what?

If you are in the restaurant business, you exist to serve people.

McDonald’s vision is a very long and winding paragraph that includes references to the experience, their number one product and their guests. It feels very much like what you might believe McDonald’s is striving to achieve. Starbucks leaves out guests but puts a heavy focus on top-tier quality, integrity and corporate growth.

If you are in the restaurant business, you exist to serve people. If taking care of people or trying to give people a good time is not of interest to you, do something else. This is why it’s critical that any vision be centered around the guest. What will you provide your guest to grow your brand? That may sound difficult to define, but that’s the key. It’s the difference between independent restaurants and chains.

The sole proprietor or chef-led restaurant is still focused on guests. On delighting them. On pleasing them. On earning their next visit. Chains tend to lose this focus as they grow and expand into new markets. Corporations add words like integrity and supply chain to their visions to appeal to shareholders. Independent restaurants work for every visit and successful locations never lose site of the guests. To be fair, independent restaurants do not have a vision statement.

That’s part of the problem for large or growing brands. The vision statement is meant to direct the entire company towards a goal. A big goal. It’s interesting that many (most?) audacious futures don’t have customers. Chili’s Love by 2020. The vision statement should definitely include customers if only to identify the party that will fund this future state. But that’s a copout. A focus on the ‘love’ of the brand is not a destination that can ever be reached. It’s incredibly heady and vague. NPS and sentiment data are valuable tools, but neither is an effective way to measure the vision of the brand.

This post was inspired by and borrows from this fun and inappropriate episode of The Brand Hole podcast.