Skip navigation
Applebee’s and IHOP engaged a broad base of marketing tools.

How a viral country song and broad-based campaigns boosted Applebee’s and IHOP

Dine Brands reengages its marketing teams to bring customers back

As dining rooms reopened after pandemic closures, Dine Brands and its Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill + Bar and IHOP concepts reengaged their marketing teams to remind customers what they were missing.

The result included a viral smash — Applebee’s capitalizing on the viral “Fancy Like” sensation — and an emphasis on guest customization, as prioritized by IHOP.

The two restaurant brands engaged a broad base of marketing tools. John Peyton, CEO of the Glendale, Calif.-based company, noted in a May earnings call that “our marketing plans encompass national TV, digital media, social media platforms and one-to-one marketing.”

John Cywinski, Applebee’s president, said the concept’s marketing team continued to innovate around “the most enduring, memorable and likable ad campaign in the entire industry — and, frankly, outside of the industry,” he said. “Of course, I'm talking about ‘Eating good in the neighborhood,’ something that's a real point of pride for our franchise partners, the restaurant teams and our entire organization. We hear about our advertising all the time from our guests, and it always brings a smile to my face.”

Joel Yashinsky, Applebee’s chief marketing officer who joined the company in 2018, saw a stellar opportunity when, in the summer 2021, country singer Walker Hayes’ “Fancy Like” became a viral hit, extolling the joy of a date night at Applebee’s.

The song, which stormed the internet after Hayes and his daughter posted a dance on TikTok, fit into Applebee’s authentic partnerships with music.

Yashinsky and the Applebee’s marketing team partnered with Hayes, including securing the rights to the song, and staged a date night photo opportunity of the singer and his wife, Laney, at their local Applebee’s with a “Bourbon Street Steak and an Oreo (Cookie) Shake.” It allowed for an earned media push with the image to key entertainment media, drumming up excitement for the official launch of the “Fancy Like” Date Night at Applebee’s campaign. 

That campaign included ad spots, paid digital and social, emails, social posts on Hayes’ social channels, and earned media outreach that stretched to business publications. All of it demonstrated how Applebee’s has kept nimble during the pandemic.

The brand even brought back the Oreo Cookie Shake to more than 1,500 Applebee’s restaurants nationwide. It was a menu item mentioned in the song, but it had been cut in pandemic downsizing.

The campaign generated more than 12 million organic views of the ad spots on YouTube. Social mentions of Applebee’s and “Date Night” increased by 215 percent since the song debuted.

It wasn’t all about “Fancy Like.” Applebee’s also offered collaborations with Disney, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Teremana Tequila, NBC’s “Football Night in America” and CBS’s “Survivor,” in addition to teaming up with Pepsi and Cheetos to bring the world flavored wings and cheese bites at the virtual Cosmic Wings and eventually to the Applebee’s menu.

 IHOP also initiated new programs under Kieran Donahue, who joined the brand as chief marketing officer in early 2021.

Donohue oversaw the planning and execution of the brand’s first loyalty program, the International Bank of Pancakes, which debuted in April. The rewards program allows customers to turn meals into crypto-pancakes, or PanCoins. The debut was launched with a new smartphone app that allowed for mobile pay.

Dine Brands Global, with Applebee’s and IHOP, has more than 3,400 restaurants combined in 16 countries.

Dine Brands will be honored as the Marketing Creator at CREATE: The Future of Foodservice in Denver, taking place Sept. 19-21.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.