Applebee's adds consumer behavior expert to turnaround team

A former McDonald's exec has joined the casual-dining chain.

Applebee’s has beefed up its roster of consumer-behavior analysts, key agents in the limping casual giant’s turnaround effort, by poaching a 23-year veteran of McDonald’s insights team.

Steve Levigne has joined Applebee’s as VP of insights and analytics, reporting directly to President John Cywinski. The chain described Levigne’s role as serving as Appebee’s “eyes, ears and heartbeat,” a function intended to keep the brand relevant to its customer base.

steve levigne

The chain has run into trouble in recent years by drifting away from its heritage as an accessible, everyday dining option for price-sensitive consumers. New management has promised franchisees that it will base future strategic decisions on hardcore analysis of guest preferences and the marketplace.

"Steve is a highly regarded veteran of the restaurant industry and understands our challenges from a culinary, service, value and brand differentiation perspective,” Cywinski said in a statement. “Importantly, franchisee partnership is part of his DNA, and he'll be a terrific culture fit for the Applebee's team. I plan to partner with Steve across all strategic initiatives."

At the urging of franchisees, Applebee’s parent Dine Brands Global recently decentralized its corporate consumer insights department, providing Applebee’s with analysts devoted to the brand. A separate analytical team now serves IHOP, Dine Brands’ other franchise operation.

To date, insights gleaned from Applebee’s behavioral analysts have put the brand on a back-to-basics approach. The chain has resurrected its catchy ad slogan, “Eatin’ good in the neighborhood,” and resurrected Riblets, its signature ribs dish.

Management sums up the new strategy as focusing on the mainstream, or what Dine Brands CEO Steve Joyce calls “the 99%,” not the more elite diners who were targeted by Applebee’s in its effort to become more of a steakhouse.

Levigne was previously VP of insights and strategy for McDonald’s 14,000-restaurant domestic operation.

"I look forward to uncovering real insights and contributing to innovative marketing strategies that continue the momentum for Applebee's," he said in the corporate announcement of his appointment.

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