Skip navigation
The Power List
Joel Yashinsky credits Applebee’s agency partners who “pulled me along in terms of how important [creators] are.”

How Applebee’s evolves its marketing strategy to stay relevant

The restaurant company’s influencer strategy, driven by CMO Joel Yashinsky, has yielded higher reach and engagement, while also attracting younger demographics.

Applebee’s has long been a date night destination, but the brand’s position was solidified as such in 2021 when country musician Walker Hayes sang about it in his song “Fancy Like.” That position became even clearer earlier this year when Applebee’s launched a $200 Date Night pass that sold out in about a minute.

The campaign illustrated how the brand embraces its moments in the cultural zeitgeist to both ensure top of mind awareness and drive sales and traffic. The Date Night pass is hardly the only example here; in 2022, for instance, the chain launched Saucy Gloss — a collection of lip glosses inspired by its wing sauces and in partnership with director Hannah Lux Davis. The point, again, was to “spice up your next date night.”

Such campaigns have helped the 44-year-old brand expand its share among younger consumers and more diverse consumers, as well as more guests with children. And the playbook includes more than just date night fodder; the chain has also focused more sharply on its value proposition and its menu. Consider the Dollarita; the offering was a wild success in 2017, and the company recently brought it back after a Covid pause. It helped drive traffic in Q4 and attracted a younger crowd, many of whom have never tried the brand before.

“It’s a great value and it really helped us broaden some of our demographics. It’s also a fun and engaging program,” Applebee’s CMO Joel Yashinsky said. “Our focus all boils down to driving sales and traffic and, after that, how do you keep the brand a part of culture, part of the buzz. A lot of it has to do with our food. We also have some really great success stories on channels like TikTok and Instagram and Meta and X, but we have to constantly evolve our thinking to stay relevant and make sure the next generation comes into the fold.”

One of the levers the brand pulls to stay relevant is its creator partnerships — bridging user-generated content with brand-generated content. Yashinsky credits its agency partners who “pulled me along in terms of how important they are.” Applebee’s influencer strategy, he added, has enhanced its brand position.

“They have a very powerful connection with a couple of our key demographics, and that will only continue to grow and build. The key is they have to be genuine and authentic. Consumers are able to tell when somebody is genuine while talking to them about a brand, and so that is one of the most important elements we look for with partners who help us.”

Applebee’s gives those partners the freedom to create content about the brand, whether Saucy Gloss or something else, and Yashinsky said the process is “very selective.” He said this process will continue to evolve as such partnerships become more important moving forward. Indeed, the creator economy is expected to grow at a 10-20% rate in the next five years, according to Goldman Sachs.

To understand the value within this quickly evolving environment, Applebee’s measures reach and engagement, which Yashinsky said has been “phenomenal.”

“As long as the value is there, we’ll continue to invest in it. When we see a billion impressions take place (for Saucy Gloss), we know it has a big impact and that it was a huge success,” Yashinsky said. “It used to be linear and then it was some social media and then all of a sudden, it’s just expanding on a continuous basis. So, this element is here to stay, and those content creators and influencers have shown they’re critically important for brands to work with.”

That said, authenticity is also critical.

“At the end of the day, the consumer is extremely smart and can see through phoniness. It’s important to keep it real and engaging,” Yashinsky said. “What’s truly important for Applebee’s is staying true to who we are, and we can do that by finding influencers who match our personality.”

He added that the company’s budgeting allocation has shifted a bit more toward an influencer strategy as those influences continue to show value, but noted that strategy is — and will continue to be — just one piece of a much larger pie.

“At the end of the day, we have to look at what we’re doing to benefit our guests coming into our restaurants and spending their hard-earned dollars,” he said. “We don’t want to stray too far from their great experience and great food and drink, because everything we do is tied into their experience at the restaurant.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]  

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.