Customers Go Wild for McDonald's' McRib, NFL Football

Brian Cantor

"America, f*ck yeah!"

McDonald’s’ "limited-time-only" McRib and the National Football League have emerged as clear winners this fall, showing how keeping it simple and quintessentially-American can often be a great roadmap to the hearts—and wallets—of US customers.

The largest fast food chain did not reveal specific sales figures for the promotion, but it touted last year’s limited-time return of the McRib barbecue pork sandwich as successful enough to try again. This year, sales data again remains elusive, but the ongoing rebirth of the messy favorite has done its job of significantly improving customers’ overall impression of the brand.

In an article written for Forbes, BrandIndex reports that McDonald’s’ "Impression Score" (a measure of perception that includes factors like quality, value, customer satisfaction, buzz and attention), surged in conjunction with the McRib announcement. While Impression within the overall fast food sector was fairly-flat, McDonald’s, in the news for both the McRib and the new TV network, saw growth, moving from a 24 with fast food customers and a 17 with the general population to a 35 and 32, respectively.

McDonald’s’ strategy of bringing the sandwich back on a short-term, national basis has enabled the company to benefit from the product’s cult status without damaging its folklore.

For McDonald’s regulars, it represents a nice (yet very safe) change of pace from the usual burgers, fries and chicken, but the product doesn’t overstay its welcome and thus doesn’t risk being exposed as not quite as delicious as hyped and as not quite endlessly-appealing enough to dominate year-round sales.


For McDonald’s skeptics and infrequent customers, it represents the perfect "try again" opportunity. With coffee, smoothies, and the always-popular fries on the menu, McDonald’s should not have to remain irrelevant for those who hate its burgers, and the buzzed-about McRib can potentially serve as the door-opener for those willing to find out what all the fuss is about.

Even if there were reason to believe the McRib could become a perennial top-seller, and there is no evidence to suggest that would be the case in most US markets, offering the product on a limited basis is simply the most effective branding strategy. Moreso than almost any major fast food restaurant, McDonald’s’ menu items adhere to culinary inertia (McDonald’s has introduced some healthier, trendier options, but it doesn’t change its overall burger formulae the way chains like Burger King and Wendy’s do), so few menu items are going to generate buzz in their own right (the buzz would be more about pricing and new branding strategies).

Keeping the McRib in the backpocket for special occasions gives McDonald’s that power to make waves. The second the McRib becomes a permanent menu item is the second its ability to generate buzz disappears.

Irrefutably effective, the McRib strategy has been hailed as the epitome of the limited-time-only offer. In touting the sweepstakes-style loyalty program it develops for clients, marketing firm Young America, for instance, namedrops the McRib campaignto win credibility for its proposition.

By no means is the McRib something that should definitely work. It might loosely appeal to McDonald’s’ fans’ love for all that is gluttonous and greasy, but it is neither overwhelmingly-acclaimed for its taste nor worshipped for a compelling health profile. Yet McDonald’s makes it work with a brilliant marketing effort that makes the uninspired entrêe feel special, reiterating why it so notably dominates the fast food industry in the process.

If one were to pick a stereotypical American attribute to go hand-in-hand with the love for fatty food, a passion for physical athletics would seem ideal. Of course, the ongoing love for NFL football is more about watching than playing, meaning US customers are far from abandoning a passion for sitting on their couches and enjoying the game (with a beer—and possibly a McRib—in front of them).

National television ratings for NFL action remain strong, lying in a different stratosphere than those of sports like basketball, hockey and the supposed "national pastime" baseball. And that ongoing passion for watching football, whether as a team’s loyal fan, a general appreciator of the athletics or as a personally-invested gambler or fantasy player, is delivering tangible business results for those connected to the action.

DirecTV is one such beneficiary. The satellite company announced the addition of 327,000 customers to its service in Q3, the highest subscriber growth figure in seven years. Central to the success was its NFL Sunday Ticket promotion, which was offered as a free bonus for the 2011 season. Through the package, DirecTV acts on its multi-billion-dollars NFL licensing rights by giving subscribers access to every weekly game.

Cable and over-the-air viewers never have access to more than 4 afternoon games on Sunday.

DirecTV executives admit the true success cannot be gauged until renewal figures are measured next season, but in terms of motivating people to switch to or start anew with DirecTV, the promotion absolutely did its job.

It was so successful, in fact, that DirecTV actually missed on its forecasted profit because its customer addition costs were large, certainly higher-than-expected.

Cable and satellite providers often provide promotional access to channel packages, but the successful NFL Sunday Ticket campaign shows the kind of offer that truly gets the job done.

While innovation is never discouraged and some companies will thrive by unleashing the "next big thing," marketers should not entirely consume themselves with the "cutting-edge" and "different." McDonald’s and DirecTV have spent this fall revealing that simple products with a clear connection to the American populous can hotly resonate if customers can readily appreciate the value.