With competitive pressures in the casual-dining segment intensified by its sectorwide slump and unlikely to abate soon, chains are retooling their ad campaigns and media strategies to improve sales and lessen perceptions that casual brands lack differentiation.
Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar  and Chili’s Grill & Bar  are the latest chains to break ad campaigns unlike any others they’ve used before. Buffalo Wild Wings  launched its first national TV campaign in October to gain more brand exposure in new and existing markets.
Damon’s Grill , long known as a sports-theme chain, introduced a new tag line, “Great Food. Game Day and Every Day,” as more people stayed home to watch games on their own large-screen TVs, which eroded the brand’s distinctiveness.
Sizzler  USA switched ad agencies this summer to give the brand a fresh look as it morphs toward casual dining and away from its grill-buffet roots. A new Sizzler campaign is scheduled to break early next year.
The flurry of marketing activity is a response to what some experts say is an ever-growing need to stand out from competitors.
“It’s a saturated market, and in a saturated market only strong brands succeed,” said branding expert Laura Ries of Roswell, Ga.-based Ries & Ries.
Applebee’s , whose shareholders recently approved the brand’s sale to IHOP, broke a rebranding campaign in October that includes TV spots, Internet ads, a new logo, new employee uniforms, and a new menu design and strategy.
The TV commercials break from the chain’s advertising traditions by using a talking “spokesapple” to bring customers into the restaurant. The spots are the first work for the 1,953-unit chain by McCann Erickson of New York, Applebee’s new agency.
The ads are designed to make Applebee’s stand out in an “unbelievably challenging” restaurant segment, said Shannon Scott, executive director of creative services for the Overland Park, Kan.-based chain.
“Everything is a sea of sameness,” she said. “You can’t tell one brand from the other. You do one thing and everyone copies it. That’s why we felt it was critical that we had to communicate that we’re unique.”
An apple is an obvious choice for an ad icon, and the apple in the chain’s new logo is now larger than before.
“We love what the apple stands for,” Scott said. “Wisdom, health and wholesomeness, and even temptation.”
The apple’s voice is provided by standup comic and actor Wanda Sykes, who “has a little bit of sass to her voice,” Scott said.
Applebee’s is not targeting a younger market but is trying to be “more relevant” to a broader audience “without alienating anyone,” she said.
Yet the ads may have the opposite effect, said Scott Montgomery, chief creative officer for marketing agency HLF Brandtailers in Irvine, Calif.
Applebee’s and other restaurant brands seem to be following the lead of Burger King  and “hipping up their brands,” he said, and that’s dangerous for a brand like Applebee’s.
Sykes’s voice comes off “almost trying to be too cool, too hip,” Montgomery said. “I don’t know if that will alienate old people.”
However, the chain’s creative boss Scott said the spots and the other elements in the campaign were designed to send a strong message that Applebee’s owns the category of classic grill and bar food.
Applebee’s old menu cover featured limited-time offers, but now will showcase new and improved grill and bar fare. The longstanding “Eatin’ Good in the Neighborhood” tag is out, replaced with “Together is Good.”
The new tag is intended to take the previous one a step further by positioning Applebee’s as “being more neighborly,” Scott said.
More neighbors—more of anybody—are what Applebee’s needs right now. It’s same-store sales through September were down nearly 2 percent compared with a year ago.
The 1,383-unit Chili’s, flagship brand of Dallas-based Brinker International , debuted the new “Pepper in Some Fun” tagline in October to target what the chain calls “everyday adventurers caught in a rut.”
A spot in the campaign, created by Hill Holliday of Boston, shows a couple driving home and playfully asking each other what they plan to make for dinner. The car reaches their garage, and as the door opens the camera cuts to a huge, red chile pepper inside.
“I’ve got an idea,” the man says.
Chili’s executives declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a statement, Krista Gibson, senior vice president of brand strategy, said the campaign was “built off culturally relevant consumer insights and brand truths to creatively unlock the magic of Chili’s.”
The chain’s same-store sales were up a scant 0.7 percent for Brinker’s fiscal first quarter, which ended in September.
Chili’s and Applebee’s have been leaders in the casual-dining segment, but they trail other competitors in trying to differentiate their brands, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based Technomic Information Services.
“They have to do more,” Tristano said. “You have to differentiate. It’s not part of your strategy, it is your strategy.”