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Applebee’s has always tried to be true to its “Eating good in the neighborhood,” tagline by maintaining a local focus and encouraging franchisees to stay connected to their local community.  Social media has been instrumental in providing franchisees the opportunity to connect with their local customers.  However, with 2,000 restaurants and 44 franchisees, executives at Applebee’s were worried that all of the different messages could potentially dilute the brand or differ from Applebee’s corporate driven initiatives.

National brands, like Applebee’s, are recognizing the need to create specific social media pages tailored to a local audience.  For now, Applebee’s is mostly focusing on Facebook content rather than building YouTube and Twitter sites as well.  They want to focus on one component of social media to build credibility and trust before trying to reach customers through multiple social media outlets.

Applebee’s is also realizing that the franchisor needs some control over individual franchisees or local sites to ensure that the Applebee’s brand image is being accurately portrayed.  The company hired the firm Expion to help manage its online social media presence across franchises and to extend social media development from the brand level to the store level.  Franchisees are allowed, and encouraged, to develop their own local social media pages.

A franchisee has to go through an approval process through corporate headquarters to post comments and post photos before they appear online.  Reviews are usually approved (or sometimes denied) within several hours.  In addition, corporate headquarters can send out mass updates, like new menu items or promotional initiatives.  These updates will appear to customers as if they are coming from the local store rather than the corporate headquarters. In addition, when customers post negative comments, local and regional managers are alerted immediately.  This provides managers with the opportunity to respond quickly to customer complaints and address problems.   Applebee’s wants to create a connection with the customer and ensure them that Applebee’s is listening to their comments, both positive and negative.

This new system is paying off for Applebee’s.  Since January 2011, Applebee’s has gone from 180,000 fans to over 1,000,000.  Individual Applebee’s restaurants that use Facebook to promote events have also enjoyed significantly stronger sales.

Discussion Questions:

1. What are Applebee’s franchisees doing to communicate with its customers?

Karen Kroll, Localizing the Message,” Stores News, September 2011