CMO of the Week: Applebee’s Joel Yashinsky  - Brand Innovators

CMO of the Week: Applebee’s Joel Yashinsky 

Applebee’s Joel Yashinsky has been the chief marketing officer at Applebee’s for six years and he’s still excited about the teams he works with across departments, as well as the agency partners that he works with.

“I love the Applebee’s brand. It’s a brand that I’ve grown up with. It’s a brand my kids have grown up with,” says Yashinsky. “It’s a brand that’s held true for me and my family for many years. It’s always been important to me to work for brands that I believe in and Applebee’s is certainly that type of brand.”

In his role at Applebee’s Yashinsky has been tasked with keeping the brand fresh and youthful, which includes tapping into culture to tell their story. For instance, the company worked with country singer Walker Hayes on a “Fancy Like” promotion after his song dropped featuring the lyrics: “Yeah, we fancy like Applebee’s on a date night (that’s right).” The restaurant chain also put up a UFO landing welcome sign on a Las Vegas restaurant rooftop when a sci-fi convention came to town to help promote its to-go business. Additionally, they partnered with makeup and skincare brand Winky Lux to create a wing sauce-flavored lip gloss.

“We’re always finding new and fun promotions that are value related,” says Yashinsky. “It’s also about having fun with the brand, whether it was a collaboration on ‘Fancy Like’ with Walker Hayes after he released the song or something along the lines of saucy gloss, being in the moment is really important to us. It’s always about finding those little nuggets that help keep us fresh.”

Prior to joining Applebee’s Yashinsky spent 18 years at McDonald’s. He will be speaking at Brand Innovators’ Sports Marketing Upfronts event around the NFL draft at Rocket Mortgage in Detroit this week. 

Brand Innovators caught up with Yashinsky from his office in Atlanta to talk about how he is working to keep the brand fresh, partnerships with the NFL and the networks and how 18 years of experience at McDonald’s helps his current role. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What key initiatives are you working on?

Our goal each and every day is to drive traffic into our restaurants and drive profitable sales for our restaurants. We find ways that keep us fresh, youthful and true to who we are. The fact that we’re able to take a brand that’s been a part of Americana for over 40 years and continue to make it fresh and fun for our guests and for new guests. What’s relevant to them is what’s relevant to us. We really rely on our insights team to help us make sure we’re staying in touch with our guests in a way that allows us to really focus on what’s important and right now. Value is critically important. There’s a lot of pressure on everybody’s wallets. 

What is your approach to loyalty?

We want to build a loyal fan base. Back in 2015, Applebee’s tried a program called hand cut wood fire grilled steaks and that was unaligned to our brand ethos and to our guests. It was just completely wrong for us. We learned the hard way. Now everything that we’re doing is focused on who our core guest is and making sure that they feel welcomed and that they feel the brand affinity that drives loyalty.

We’re finding ways to bring what’s important to our guests to life. The NFL partnership is certainly a key one. We did research and found that our fans are fans of the NFL. We actually over index in terms of our guests and their affinity for the NFL. As we work together with our operations team when it comes to the guest experience and how we bring that to life in our restaurants is all built around the fact that we want to build the loyalty and affinity of each and every one of our guests to get one or two more visits a year. We take the data to help make sure that what we’re doing will help build that loyalty and allow us to connect with customers. All of that is tied to really making sure that people have a feeling of trust to move it from a like to love for the brand. That will help build that loyalty connection. 

Can you talk more about sports marketing and working with the NFL? 

The NFL has been really important for us over my six years as CMO. When we really started to identify that football was the sport that our guests had the strongest passion for, we started developing relationships with the network partners including our sponsorship with NBC Sunday Night Football and Football Night in America with their pregame show. We also partner with the other major networks. As they’ve gone to streaming, our ads now appear as part of Amazon’s Thursday Night Football.

We’re not a sports bar, we’re a bar for a grill and bar for every occasion. But people do come to Applebee’s to watch the game because we have 15-20 screens in every one of our restaurants, particularly around the bar area.

How are you working on co-branded restaurants with iHOP?

There’s been some work done internationally on co-branded restaurants that have had some really great success and so it’s an area where we look for ideas and opportunities. We’re looking forward to seeing what can work for that type of experience in the United States. We’re just beginning that effort to understand it on a deeper level before jumping in too big. It’ll be interesting to see what we can find and what we can do to present that to The States and see where it goes.

How are you telling the Applebee’s story?

We don’t want to have just a transactional interaction with our guests. For example, we know our guests love our boneless wings. We sell a lot of boneless wings and fans of the brand love it and so we wanted to validate their love so we went out and tested it and verified the fact that we have America’s favorite boneless wings. We were really excited to share that with our guests and give them the opportunity to have them. 

We ran a $.50 promotion to be able to bring new guests that maybe hadn’t been considering us recently, to bring in that consideration set by tying into this claim of America’s favorite Boneless wings. That all ties together – building loyalty, driving revenue and driving traffic into our restaurants. It hit as we expected it to. It was very successful.

How does your experience at McDonald’s and other brands help in your current role?

I spent 18 years in McDonald’s and learned a lot about the restaurant business and the guests and consumers. It’s also a franchise organization, so all those learnings over those years has helped lead me to what’s been a really fantastic experience at Applebee’s. To be CMO for six years at a brand like Applebee’s and still enjoy coming to work every day is a statement to the brand and to the people.

From McDonald’s, I learned the importance of driving results, creating a great work environment and having fun. We were able to do that at Applebee’s and that’s why we’re really looking forward to 2024 and beyond in terms of how our brand evolves and develops. I’m very optimistic about where we are and where we are going.

How are you thinking about innovation?

We just had an innovation and ideation session. We brought in a wide swath of the organization including franchise representation and cross functions of our many different teams, because it’s really important that they all tie together. How do we ensure that what we’re thinking about from a marketing standpoint or a culinary standpoint or a beverage standpoint also integrates well with our restaurants? We had alignment that really is going to drive some continued innovation, whether it’s culinary or its promotion or partnership. 

We just launched our Whole Lot of Bacon Burger, which is one of our best testing products of all time in the test market. Whether it is our Dollarita promotion, a partnership with a celebrity, our beverage business, some new culinary items, or some new promotions that will launch with our NFL partnership, bringing that innovation forward and being fresh is critically important because you always have to be building and innovating. We’re really starting to bring that forward at a much higher velocity. We’ve got some great new things in the pipeline for 2024.