McDonald's is holding out the star performer in hopes the product
will drive sales to meet those of December 2011, which were up a
whopping 9.8%. That's a tough comp, but McDonald's won't be alone
in trying to beat it. Fourth-quarter 2011 and first quarter 2012
marked one of the mildest winters in years, which had a hugely
positive impact on restaurant sales generally.
"The winter is seasonally a slower period," said Howard Penney,
restaurant analyst and managing director at Hedgeye Risk
Management. "A lot of people underestimated the massive impact the
weather had on sales."
McRib has a relatively small but rabid fan base, in part because
of its limited window, and typically provides a proven business
boost. Devotees have traveled to find stores offering it. Bloggers
have written countless words about it. McRib superfan Alan Klein
built the McRib Locator website and multiple Facebook pages have
been created to celebrate the sandwich. McDonald's tapped into that
fanaticism in a 2010 ad campaign positioning McRib as a legend.
But McDonald's needs to attract new fans to match last
December's sales. It wants to bring in a broader consumer base with
McRib -- actually a restructured pork product molded into the shape
of ribs -- with messaging focused on "high-quality pork" and its
"unique taste," according to the memo. Omnicom's DDB, Chicago,
handles national general-market advertising.
"There must be great concern at McDonald's home office over
winter-sales challenges, because it's very unusual to make changes
to the marketing plan only a few months before the fourth quarter,
the most important quarter on the calendar," said Richard Adams, a
restaurant consultant and former McDonald's franchisee.
Two new products
The memo also said that in place of the McRib this fall, the
chain will market two new products: the Cheddar Bacon Onion Angus
burger and a similarly dressed chicken sandwich, positioned as
premium items with higher prices. It's likely the two will be
offered for a limited time, as the company in May said it will ramp
up its pipeline with limited-time offers in the coming years.
"[Cheddar Bacon Onion] is forecasted to be a stronger sales
opportunity for the total McDonald's system, driven mainly by
higher sustainable period sales as well as higher average check,"
according to a separate memo about the Cheddar Bacon Onion
sandwiches obtained by Ad Age .
Even if the McRib saves Christmas and, by extension, McDonald's
fourth quarter, the chain faces a fresh challenge when it has to go
up against February 2012 U.S. same-store sales, which rang in at a
staggering 11.1%. McDonald's U.S. same-store sales were up 7.1% in
fourth quarter 2011 and 8.9% in first quarter 2012, but sales since
then haven't been as strong.
The heavy lifting for February won't fall to McRib, which is
likely to be phased out in January, but to a new product: Fish
McBites. According to an email obtained by Ad Age that was sent
from one of the chain's major suppliers, Fish McBites are slated to
be offered nationally in February, probably on a limited-time
basis. Fish McBites last February were available in select test
markets, but this will be the product's first national rollout.
A spokeswoman for McDonald's said: "We cannot comment on leaked