"I had no idea that people would actually hear the song, do the dance, spread the song like wildfire," Hayes says of "Fancy Like." And, he adds, "I had no idea Applebee's would be so receptive."
Applebee's is hardly the only advertiser showing interest in country music. Just since the start of 2021, at least eight additional campaigns have featured country performances for their soundtracks:
- Federal Express employed Willie Nelson's "Always on My Mind"
- T-Mobile launched an ad with Florida Georgia Line's "I Love My Country"
- Zillow incorporated the falsetto hook from Eddy Arnold's "The Cattle Call" into a new commercial
- Apple applied Kitty Wells' "Searching (For Someone Like You)" to a haystack-themed spot
- Ram Trucks introduced a Chris Stapleton cover of Al Green's "I Am a Ram"
- Squarespace inverted Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" as "5 to 9" for an ad that debuted during the Super Bowl
- Airbnb licensed John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy"
- Coors Light featured Johnny Lee's "Lookin' for Love"
That all comes atop other recent uses of country music for advertising, including The Highwomen's "Crowded Table" in a Campbell's spot, Carrie Underwood's "Favorite Time of Year" in a Ring holiday ad, Miranda Lambert's "The House That Built Me" with Masimo medical equipment and Hank Williams' "Hey, Good Lookin' " in a Perdue chicken campaign.
"Especially now during the pandemic, and hopefully as we get post-pandemic, it brings out an element to people of normalcy," says Applebee's vp/chief marketing officer Joel Yashinsky of the country genre. "I think that speaking to normal elements of life is what people are looking for today. Country music artists are down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth types of folks, and I think that's something people are looking for no matter where they live across the country."
Plenty of observers expected the company would be looking at "Fancy Like" as a potential vehicle once it hit the mainstream. Walker, after all, celebrates the casual-dining brand and a couple of menu items in the first verse of the chorus. But when the commercial emerged, it actually went against the typical way of thinking in advertising synchronization.
"When it came on, I kind of laughed because there's always these sorts of things that pop up, and they're sort of like ‘unicorn' moments," says Warner Chappell Nashville director of sync licensing Katie Jelen. "Writers and artists will always use them as an example for like years to come. Here I am always telling writers, ‘Don't write songs about brands because brands don't want to use songs with their names.' And then this song does what it does, which is, again, it's a unicorn. It's a perfect storm. I was like, ‘Oh, great. Here we go.' "
Hayes' perfect storm is a personal story. Before their marriage, he and wife Lainey often had date nights at Applebee's, and the family still visits regularly. Hayes actually had doubts during the vocal session about using that lyric, fearful it would actually hurt the commercial potential of "Fancy Like." But he left it in because it related so closely to his own life. And that authenticity made a difference.
"There are lots of artists that do songs about other brands," says Yashinsky. "This one came from the heart; it came with a history with his wife. We're always looking for great songs that fit, with that sort of toe-tapping appeal that connects with our guests and makes people feel good."
Artists haven't always been looking for brands. In the late 1980s, Steve Winwood lip-synced then-current single "Don't You Know What the Night Can Do?" in a Michelob ad. Music executives debated in a Billboard story at the time whether licensing songs for corporate use was a smart financial move or simply selling out.
"We're selling out shows is what we're doing," says Hayes, noting that he recently sold out a club in San Jose, Calif., in four minutes that would have previously required several days. "It's completely mind-blowing that a song can do that."
"Someone did a poll of Gen Z-ers recently and asked about the idea of selling out," adds Jelen. "They didn't even know what that was."
The Hayes-Applebee's relationship is a bit of an outlier. The lyrics spurred the company to put the Oreo shake, dropped from its offerings during the pandemic, back on the menu. Also in the artwork are a photo of Walker and Lainey, as well as a TikTok screen grab. Both parties have expressed openness to extending a relationship that's mutually beneficial. Hayes' country/hip-hop hybrid sound is connecting the chain to a variety of demographics, while the Applebee's deal brought in cash when Hayes wasn't touring – and the money comes in faster than performance royalties, which usually arrive about nine months after the actual broadcast date. Additionally, the TV airings reinforce a hook that was already getting good rotation on radio and streaming playlists.
"I definitely don't think it's going to hurt it, having it in the commercials, getting those spins," says Hayes. "Careerwise, it's a dream come true for an artist, especially of my status, to have this massive appeal and to get this many impressions. I mean, a management team or a booking agency would just kill for this much exposure."
This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.