Why it doesn’t McMatter if you don’t like the McRib

November 17, 2010, 4:51 PM UTC

The cult favorite sandwich, hovering on the border between yum and yuck, won’t mean much to McDonald’s bottom line. But it’s moving the needle on the company’s brand awareness, especially in social media.

Wondering what a McRib, McDonald’s barbecue pork sandwich, tastes like, but haven’t quite worked up the steam to go out and try one? Just ask the Internet:

“It’s fast food’s best version of comfort food.” “I’ll take an order of 25.” “Worst heartburn I ever had.” “Epitome of gross/awesome.” “The one thing I love at McDonalds is back.” “The best awful food ever.” “The best thing since cell phones and Nintendo.” “Has the spongy texture of A Dr. Scholl’s gel insert.”

That’s a sampling of what’s been floating around on Twitter and the blogosphere regarding the McRib, back on the menu nationally for a limited offering for the first time since 1994.

If you’re a McRib newbie, the heated comments might be enough to make you want to try one. Could it really be that good? Could it really be that bad? Are you culturally illiterate if you don’t know what it is? As one Tweet put it: “I’ve heard so much about this mystical sandwich I must see for myself now.”

While admittedly McDonald’s (MCD) would rather hear the “yums” than the “yucks,” that’s almost beside the point for the fast food giant. The McRib is working as a marketing device for the company and the individual reviews — good, bad, or other — are less important as a whole than the general brand awareness it’s stimulating. (For examples of more fodder, check out @McRibSandwich on Twitter or McRib-inspired haikus at the Los Angeles Times blog.)

McDonald’s and its golden arches have unmatched recognition on a global level, but it’s hard to generate excitement about a brand that’s so ubiquitous. McDonald’s, says Neil Morgan, a marketing professor at Indiana University’s business school, “is just established and everyone knows it, and that could become boring from an adult perspective.” Because the chain appeals to children and families in particular, Morgan says that the McRib is McDonald’s attempt to make a bigger play for adults.

“I’m guessing they’re probably tracking buzz,” says Morgan, who adds that the company is likely more interested in the demographic of who’s buzzing than if they’re offering up a positive or negative review.

Rick Wion, McDonald’s social media director, says that the company has seen more positive response than negative, but even the less-than-stellar feedback might still spark an interest. “Either way, we hope it might drive people to try it,” he says. Some of the anti-McRib commentary is probably coming from people who have never even tried the sandwich, he says. “Whenever there’s hype, there’s going to be anti-hype,” Wion adds.

Some of the negative feedback may also stem from confusion about how the sandwich is made. It’s 100% USDA pork loin and shoulder chopped up and made into a patty shaped to look like it contains ribs. (It doesn’t.) “I think the fact that it looks like ribs but there are no ribs, that probably throws some people off,” Wion says.

While Twitter is humming with heated opinions, McDonald’s has also taken to the social networking site to promote the McRib. The company did its first Promoted Tweet and Promoted Trend on Twitter around the McRib because they’d seen a “consistent level of chatter” about the sandwich there prior to launch, Wion says.

The McRib has popped up in regional markets since its launch in 1981, leading fans to make special trips when word of a McRib sighting spreads. (It’s even spawned websites like the McRib Locator). “There’s a cult following for this McRib product,” says Barclays Capital analyst Jeffrey Bernstein.

The fleeting nature of the McRib has helped drive interest in the barbecue sandwich in the past, and McDonald’s is further stressing this quality through its current limited time offer. The McRib will only be on the menu for a matter of weeks, creating the sense that if you don’t try it today, you’ll miss it. “It’s a reason to go to McDonald’s right now,” says Tim Calkins, a professor of marketing at Kellogg School of Management.

Why not just launch a new product to create buzz? With the McRib, McDonald’s has “already created a seed in the marketplace,” says Morgan. If you start from scratch, that takes a long time and is expensive to raise the level of awareness. Plus, says Harry Balzer with NPD Group, this country will not eat something that’s completely new. “We don’t move too far afield,” he notes.

The McRib is also a way to get McDonald’s on consumers’ radars, whether they plan to buy the barbecue sandwich or not. Consumers make two votes every day when it comes to their meals, says Stifel Nicolaus analyst Steve West: where am I going to eat (at home or out), and if you do eat out, where you eat. Often we grab a bite wherever comes to mind first. The McRib’s polarizing nature helps keep McDonald’s top of mind. “I know people who hate it, and I know people who love it,” says West. “The point is that they’re thinking about McDonald’s.” That means they’re all the more likely to walk into the restaurant. Whether they walk out with a McRib is almost beside the point.