Can the McRib Save Christmas?

McDonald's Delays Cult Favorite to Boost December Comps

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McRib comes but once a year, usually from late October through early November. But this year McRib fans will have to wait until late December for McDonald's pork-sandwich-turned-cult-hit. For that , they can blame the weather. Or, more specifically, last year's weather.

According to a memo obtained by Ad Age from McDonald's Operators National Advertising Fund, the chain's national-franchise council, the McRib marketing window was originally scheduled for Oct. 22 through Nov. 11. But "after looking at ways to strengthen the fourth-quarter 2012 OPNAD calendar," McDonald's made the decision to move the sandwich promotion to the latter half of December, the memo said. McRib will get TV, radio, digital, in-store, social media and PR support.

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.

Underestimate impact
"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 documents, information."

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