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Poking fun at your own company pays off

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

No one thinks of Applebee’s, the restaurant chain, as a purveyor of fine dining. So Julia Stewart, CEO of parent company Dine Equity, sees Applebee’s for what it is.

When Dine Equity acquired Applebee’s in 2007, it was a declining brand with sputtering sales. Stewart sold off 479 Applebee’s units and made the rest of them franchise operations. The reason: She felt franchisees “know best how to meet the needs of their markets.”

The moves paid off. Applebee’s has reversed course with two consecutive years of same-store sales growth.

Stewart, 58, also accepted the popular perception of Applebee’s as an average casual-dining chain. While some CEOs might fight to change the public’s mind, Stewart decided to welcome publicity about Apple­­bee’s—even when it reinforced the chain’s middling image.

For example, she approved the use of Applebee’s in an unflattering light in movies such as “Talladega Nights” and “Hall Pass.” Appearing in popular Hollywood comedies increased the chain’s visibility.

“We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Stewart adds.

Stewart carried the joke even further. Jason Sudeikis, star of “Hall Pass,” pokes fun at Applebee’s in the movie. When the chain launched its “See You Tomorrow” ads in 2012 (to suggest that diners could eat lunch one day and dinner the next at Applebee’s), Stewart hired Sudeikis to star in the commercials.

Praising Sudeikis for his “lighthearted, irreverent feel,” Stewart even commissioned the actor to make a video for Dine Equity that she screened at a company event. In the vignette, he says, “Hey, I mocked a casual-dining chain in a movie, and the next thing you know, I’m the company’s spokesperson!”

— Adapted from “Keeping Things Casual,” Ben Paynter.

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