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Applebee’s sports décor needs a refresh for future business

Applebee’s parent company DineEquity recently acknowledged that it’s time to push the reset button on the concept. Does that mean Applebee’s future business is shifting further away from one of its foundational principles, a connection to its clientele through memorabilia and other fan junk of local sports teams posted on the walls? We can only hope.

A chainwide decision to appear  to support local teams through its décor seems forced. It’s a top-down demand, not a choice that comes from the individual operators. The effort to appeal to locals has the opposite effect; it feels inauthentic, bordering on gimmicky. Granted, this is coming from the mindset of a millennial. Maybe boomers like to see a jersey from their kid’s high-school soccer team tacked up. But is that NFL team flag floating next to the MLB ball cap really going to make anyone, no matter what age, think the operation is invested in local teams? I can only speak for my age bracket, but the answer is probably not.

For its future operations, Applebee’s might want to look to the marketing strategies adopted by other restaurants and bars—those that fully throw their fandom into one or two teams. Take all of the college-specific bars that are extremely popular with millennials. In Chicago alone, every Big 10 School has a few bars behind it. And you can bet fans of those schools flock to those bars whenever a game is on.

For the impending makeover (and for other operators looking to sports to identify with customers), take a cue from these millennial hotspots and embrace the mantra, “don’t try to be everything to everyone.” Focus on one or two teams instead of every team within a ten-mile radius. Work on building a niche set of superfans who could easily become regulars. From an execution standpoint, this wouldn’t be too much of a departure from the norm for Applebee’s. It would still hang the same sport-themed memorabilia. But instead of a hodgepodge, give customers a single team to relate back to the restaurant brand.

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