Marketing the McRib

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Gabriel Marketing Group

Love it, hate it, or never tried it, the McRib is back.  As of December 17, 2012, this cult favorite was back on the McDonald’s menu much to the delight of its devoted fans, and to the fascination of those who just don’t understand the obsession. For those who might not be familiar, the McRib is a culinary gem concocted by the masterful minds at McDonald’s, comprised of boneless pork smothered in barbecue sauce and topped with pickles and onions, on a sesame seed bun.

Here’s the catch: the McRib is only slightly less elusive than Big Foot; it is the unicorn of fast food, if you will. First introduced by Mickey D’s in 1981, the McRib was removed from the menu in 1985, only to make a comeback in 1989, and remain on the menu until2005. Beginning in 2006, the McRib has only been made available for an unspecified short amount of time each year (much like the chain’s Shamrock Shakes), and is almost never available at all McDonald’s restaurants at the same time. With a tumultuous history that mimics that of almost any iconic rock band (there have been three separate “McRib Farewell Tours”), it should come as no surprise the McRib also enjoys the same amount of mythology and acclaim.

So what is it about this sandwich that has spawned hundreds of social media fan pages, landed it a guest spot on The Simpsons, created the need for an online McRib locator, and has people traveling hours to get their hands on it, causing otherwise sane humans to hoard pork sandwiches?

The McRib mystique is comprised of some key marketing tactics, which, whether intentional or circumstantial, can teach us all a few lessons (personal McRib feelings aside). These are:

Build a brand beyond your product or service. Note that this sandwich is not called ” Barbecued Pork Sandwich.” While factually correct, this name adds nothing new to the brand besides offering a generic description of the product–and one that most likely would not have fostered the same cult like following and devotion people feel towards the McRib. When introducing a new product, collection, brand, etc., think about how to create a personality and niche for whatever it is. Similarly, it’s important to recognize this emotional bond consumers have with your brand. The (multiple) McRib farewell tours gave consumers a chance to say good-bye to their beloved sandwich, creating a deep connection that paid off when McDonald’s decided to reintroduce it later.

Make consumers feel part of something bigger. In case it wasn’t made clear that McRib fans are serious about their pork, let me tell you, they are serious. This is good for McDonald’s for a number of reasons. Obviously, it’s a good thing when people want to buy your product. It’s a great thing when people are willing to go to great lengths to get your product. But what’s of most value for McDonald’s is the whole “McRib experience.” Each and every fan of the McRib has their own story or experience–when they first tried it, the best McRib they’ve ever had, or the furthest they’ve traveled for a McRib, to name some a few. These stories create a shared history between consumers, instantly connecting them to each other, to the brand, and to the greater group of McRib fans across the globe.

Confidence is key. Own your brand. As with any brand that has droves of devoted followers, there will be haters. And you know what they say, “Haters gonna hate.” The McRib is no exception. These people don’t agree with–or just plain don’t understand–the reasons why the McRib is so beloved. (Think the digestible version of an Apple product). The McRib (and Apple, for that matter) has stuck with the brand aspects that made it so popular in first place, while not trying to please everybody. The result? A loyal fan base that enjoys being a member of an exclusive club – that’s not for everyone.

Most importantly, McDonald’s has recognized the role that its consumers play in the success of the McRib. There is no doubt that the allure of the McRib would dramatically decrease if it were suddenly available all the time. Fans love the thrill of the chase; not knowing when, where, and for how long the McRib will be available. McDonald’s has played the marketing game right by capitalizing on this, elevating a barbeque pork sandwich into the coveted realm of American pop culture. This kind of interactive marketing technique engages the consumer and relinquishes some of the brand control into the hands of devoted fans–a main ingredient in the “secret sauce” of marketing success.

From the Blog

Leah Nurik