Applebee’s Makes the Most of Its ‘Casual’ Reputation

Ask the average guy on the street for a prime example of a generic, mediocre “casual dining” chain and chances are very good that he’ll name Applebee’s, The Olive Garden, or both (though you might get the occasional Outback Steakhouse or T.G.I. Friday’s).

These restaurants often do pretty good business, but we think you’ll agree: they have something of an image problem. Yet Applebee’s, also known as the microwave industry’s best friend, has witnessed big sales growth over the past two years.

How? Let’s call it self-acceptance.

Julia Stewart, CEO of parent company DineEquity, uses her recent Fast Company interview to talk about selling locations to local operators, yada yada, but her main point involves embracing the fact that people tend to make fun of Applebee’s (if they mention it at all).

Stewart explains the company’s decision to sign off on less-than-flattering portrayals in big movies by saying “we don’t take ourselves too seriously”. In fact, the brand went so far as to hire actor Jason Sudeikis as a spokesman after he appeared in the lame Hall Pass as a predictably lame Applebee’s fan. Stewart says that her team spends “a great deal of time and effort trying to bring our brand to life” by engaging in dialogue with people who mention the chain online, and we take that to mean that they’re in on the joke, because no one takes Applebee’s seriously.

So forget all this nonsense about fresh ingredients–the company’s rebranding is best personified by the “See You Tomorrow” campaign which, in the company’s own words, “focuse[s] on serving good food to good people” (translation: serving mediocre food to the same people day after day). The “Club Applebee’s” phenomenon, in which locations “branch out” by turning into crazy after-hours party spots, is another thing entirely.

We love this story: A brand succeeds by accepting and even publicizing its own mediocrity without directly admitting as much. As Stewart puts it, “This isn’t the Cuban missile crisis. It’s dinner.”

Shine on, Applebee’s–may you inspire a million more bitchy Yelp reviews.