McDonald's brought back the McRib this week, but once again just for a limited time. Cruel and unusual? Maybe. It's also brilliant marketing. Here's what you can learn from the country's most in-demand pork sandwich.
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COMEBACK KID: The McRib, master of the limited-time-only promotion, time and time again.
What can a boneless barbeque-pork sandwich teach you about marketing? More than you might think.
McDonald's announced Monday that its elusive McRib sandwich is back on its menu, available at all U.S. locations until November 14. (For a limited time only!) Since it was introduced in 1982, the McRib has been a fleeting menu item, irking customers by never settling in one location for too long. (Hurry, get it while it lasts!) And in the last decade, McDonald's has begun using the McRib's alleged eternal disappearance (One last chance!) and miraculous comeback (Wait, there's more!) as quirky promotional events.
Does all that hype sound familiar? While McDonald's playing hard-to-get with the McRib certainly baffles most customers, from a business perspective, it has proven to be a wildly effective marketing strategy. The McRib's marketing strategy bundles the appeal of exclusivity, scarcity, and seasonality into one savory package. And it's become a strategy so successful that McDonald's is making the promotion perennial.
Proof? How about a Facebook fan page that has more than 7,000 "Likes," or the obsessive unofficial McRib Locator website, which attempts to identify McRib hot zones by cobbling together user-submitted "confirmed" and "possible" sightings of the McRib across the United States, (according to the site, the Northeastern states and Southern California currently boast the most confirmed sightings). The McRib has even found a place in the pop-cultural zeitgeist: It was immortalized in a 2003 episode of The Simpsons in which Homer became addicted to the "Krusty Burger RibWich."
"Bringing it back every so often adds to the excitement," Marta Fearon, marketing director of McDonald's, told the Associated Press. She taunted that it is "too early to speculate" whether the McRib will return next year.
Want a piece of the marketing magic? Here's what you can learn from the McRib's comeback—again and again—and how you can add some more special sauce to your own limited-time-only campaigns.
Scarcity works, but only if your product is known. "The limited-time-only campaign is as old as business itself, but it has to be done carefully," says Scott Stratten, marketing consultant and author of Un-Marketing.
"If you open your doors with a limited-time sale on one product, you probably won't get a lot of business and you'll just have to take that item off the shelf in a week," he says. "It's not the best strategy for new start-ups."
He also warns that having "limited-time" sales that drag on for months don't work either, as they tend to just look disingenuous—and just plain desperate.
Your customers know your products better than you do. In the case of the McRib, McDonald's has always been clued into its customers' odd obsession for the sandwich.
"Very often I see owners surprised by who likes their products and how their customers use their products," says Hamilton Wallace, founder of Small Business Marketing Consultants, a firm based in Scottsdale, Arizona.
"Business owners shouldn't turn their heads to new uses or obsessions of their customers," he says. "Hats off to McDonald's for simply paying attention."
Before the buzz dies, engage the community. Local engagement is one area in which experts say small businesses always have an edge over a big company like McDonald's.
"Thanks to social media, the voice of your customers is louder than the voice of the company," says Stratten. "You should be responding to any buzz going on about a popular product."
Stratten says, for example, a small Milwaukee-based burger joint called A.J. Bombers recently created buzz by hosting a deadline-based "Name that Burger" competition.
"They had people come into the restaurant, and sign their Twitter name on the ceiling along with submissions. It was a double win: it drove in a lot of business to the location and, later, chatter on Twitter," he says. "McDonald's can't do that, even with a multi-million dollar marketing campaign. Small business owners can and should engage the community."
Don't be a marketing robot. Let's be honest: there's something funny about the McRib. And McDonald's uses that to its advantage.
"To have a company as big as that have a spokesperson talk about the McRib like a top secret document is just plain funny, and customers get that," says Stratten. "It's good to remember you have to have a sense of humor, because personality goes a long way in marketing."
Especially in limited-time-only sales or seasonal products, Wallace says you don't want to pressure you customers to buy with a really in-your-face campaign.
"Don't take yourself so seriously. You're not trying to co-op and control your customers," he adds. "You want to be on their side. If they're having fun with your product, so should you."