by Betsy Wecker
On the growing list of “businesses millennials are killing,” you’ll find everything from marmalade to napkins. According to my Facebook timeline, the casualty that most stokes the cultural consciousness is one Neighborhood Grill & Bar™: Applebee’s.
Last year, in a flailing attempt to mitigate losses in market share, the restaurant chain launched an astonishing $75 million campaign built on wood-fired grills installed in 2,000 kitchens, and upgraded USDA Choice steaks, hand-cut on-site (previously their steaks were ungraded). This, according to President Julia Stewart, would spark appeal to a younger demographic.
Fast forward a year, and despite their magnificent pursuit of the largest generation in American history, Applebee’s is reportedly “over” millennials.
As a millennial, I wasn’t shocked. “Crapplebee’s” memes readily surface in Google searches, and that can’t be fully explained by the purported millennial penchant for $12 toast. After a 10-year hiatus, I resolved to eat dinner at the place shunned by my demographic peers. At a Cincinnati location, I found glaring indicators of millennial kryptonite: flagrant inauthenticity, hard selling, and an utter void of transparency.
You’re Inauthentic, but You Think You’re Authentic
An uncannily apropos analogy for millennials’ disinterest in Applebee’s can be found in the witty dialogue between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan’s characters in the late-80s romcom, When Harry Met Sally. In one of the greatest movie quotes of all time, Harry (Crystal) explains to Sally (Ryan) that women can be divided into two categories: high maintenance and low maintenance. When Sally asks which one she falls into, Harry replies, “You’re the worst kind. You’re high maintenance, but you think you’re low maintenance.”
At 8:15 on a Wednesday evening, only a few tables in the dimly-lit dining room were full. A massive corner booth sat empty, flanked by a number of potted, obviously fake flowers. Gone were the Applebee’s-branded Tiffany lamps, replaced by crayon-hued pendulum lights. On each table, a touchscreen device featured a revolving screen of pay-per-play games for both you and your pacified-by-technology child.
Apart from an updated logo, contemporary fixtures, and snazzy tech, the interior was exactly as I remembered. The core of Applebee’s branding has always been its claim of being a hometown establishment, despite their over 2,000 locations. Proof is displayed in the various local flair on the walls—in particular, an array of regional team logos behind a sign on the dining room’s back wall that reads “OUR TEAMS.” Applebee’s piggybacks on the identity of its geography; in an attempt to be all things to everyone, they miss out on conveying any real sense of self.
Stop Selling Me
At Applebee’s, you’re bombarded by three separate menus. The main menu offers 11 pages of redundant variety. The “Pasta, Seafood and More” section features three pasta dishes but only one type of noodle—cavatappi, or glorified macaroni. There’s also a five-page foldout for wood-fired selections, and another seven-page drink offering. Three tabletop cards describe a number of promotions; even more specials are advertised on ceiling-hung banners. And on the touchscreen tablet, every third image is a menu item, in case you haven’t reached near-total decision fatigue.
There’s a reason traditional advertising doesn’t work like it used to. Millennials grew up with technology that made it all too easy to lift the veil on a global economic machine driven largely by propaganda. But when you walk into Applebee’s, there’s zero awareness of this cultural shift.
Zero Transparency, Literally
When we discuss transparency with respect to millennials, we’re typically referring to a company’s ethics. However, Applebee’s biggest problem stems from its unwillingness to show customers where their food comes from, even in the most literal sense. The only indication of pedigree is the copy, “Our chicken is farm-raised in the USA with no added hormones,” which is meaningless verbiage. Many have theorized Applebee’s entrees are simply microwaved, no more superior in nutritional content than the Kid Cuisines millennials were raised on.
Few would be surprised that our dishes looked completely different from the advertised images. While I pride myself on having an eye for creating appealing Instagram visuals, this stuff couldn’t be doctored. Maybe Applebee’s doesn’t microwave their food, but it sure tastes (and looks) like it, and since customers have no visibility into the kitchen, it’s a safe assumption.
And that’s the kicker: the kitchen is completely hidden from view. With the rise of fast casual, we’ve become accustomed to meals prepped in front of us. Even high-end restaurants keep floor plans open for customers to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse, but patrons don’t have that option at Applebee’s. What’s more, the chain invested heavily in wood-fired ovens customers can’t see.
If You Can’t Be Good, At Least Be Honest
According to President Stewart, “In talking to guests, we discovered that a platform built on 'USDA Choice,' 'hand-cut in-house' and 'wood-fired'…had the potential to differentiate us in a crowded market." What these phrases belie is the underlying emotions that these features would satisfy. In particular, they call out a desire for authenticity and transparency. Rather than actioning the unspoken desires, Applebee’s investment was essentially invisible, and therefore counterproductive.
There’s a millennial movement toward self-acceptance; they gravitate toward brands that, like them, embrace who they are. For Applebee’s, a cheaper and more palatable strategy may be radical honesty. A poll of my millennial counterparts, resulted in the hypothetical tagline, “Screw It. We’re Applebee’s.” If we have to choose, we’d rather you be honest than good.