Since acquiring Applebee's in 2007, Julia Stewart, the CEO of parent company DineEquity (which also owns IHOP), has reversed the chain's fortunes and overseen two straight years of same-store sales growth. The key? Remembering that it's just Applebee's. (Unloading a few hundred restaurants helped, too.)
FC: Following the 2007 acquisition, you sold off 479 Applebee's stores to make the company 99% franchise based. Why?
Stewart: From the get-go, our goal has been to be a franchisor, not an operator. Franchisees know best how to meet the needs of their markets, so we give them as much local control as possible to make our brands relevant in their communities. The proof is in the pudding.
Applebee's seems to be the go-to reference when someone wants to make a joke about a generic casual-dining chain. How does that complicate the creation of a brand identity?
Sure, sometimes the message about us isn't one that we'd want. We started a campaign last year, called "See You Tomorrow," to remind guests that they can visit us for lunch one day, dinner the next, come to watch the game, girls' night out, and so on. But if we see tweets about us, or learn about people who have created an online video, our job is to engage in that dialogue. We spend a great deal of time and effort trying to bring our brand to life in that way.
In late 2011, the Onion did a video about a fictional Applebee's ad campaign focused on hipsters eating at the restaurant ironically. Did you see it?
No, I'm not familiar with it. But it's the Onion. Even if it is a negative or satirical kind of thing, I think people can understand and laugh about it. It's not something we worry about.
To the company's credit, Applebee's has signed off on appearing in an unflattering light in comedies such as Talladega Nights and Hall Pass. Is that a product-placement arrangement?
Quite the opposite—the producers pay for the right to use our likeness. Since Applebee's is such an American icon, it's natural that TV and Hollywood writers think of us. We always review the script before signing off, but we don't take ourselves too seriously.
It's one thing to allow the brand to be goofed on; it's another thing to revel in it. Yet you hired Jason Sudeikis, whose character in Hall Pass is a lame Applebee's enthusiast, to be the voice of the "See You Tomorrow" campaign. What motivated that?
Jason fits perfectly with the direction of our brand revitalization and has a voice that people recognize and associate with a lighthearted, irreverent feel. He even made a vignette for us that we showed at a company event. In it he essentially says, "Hey, I mocked a casual-dining chain in a movie, and the next thing you know, I'm the company spokesperson!" That exemplifies who we are. This isn't the Cuban missile crisis. It's dinner.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.