One man's trash is another man's treasure goes the old saying. I'm pretty sure the same principle applies to fast food. Some love Arby's “We've Got The Meats” menu, while others think it's gross. Is the “Impossible Whopper” an answer to healthier lunches or just a flimsy substitute for the real thing?
And that leads us to a serious conversation about McDonald's McRib sandwich, a delicacy that's only available when the company decides it's going to be available. Despite how much Mickey D fans love McRib, the strategy has been to purposely not make it a permanent menu item.
What are they thinking? If McDonald's operated like a radio station, they'd parlay its sales into a 24/7 offering, making sure the McRib was available all the time.
But then, it wouldn't be special.
By only offering up this delicacy every once in a while, McDonald's builds anticipation – in a major way. Thanks to the Internet and social media, entire groups have sprung up, looking for clues or signs of McRib sightings.
This makes these McRib moments viral – something that isn't possible with the Big Mac or Chicken McNuggets.
If there's a radio analogy, it might be Christmas music, which should be making its debut somewhere any day now. But unlike the excitement surrounding McRib, a radio station going early with Burl Ives, Brenda Lee, and Bing Crosby isn't usually celebrated. In fact, if anything, listeners will tell you that many stations go to the Christmas format too early, often long before they get into that Noël spirit.
But imagine having a secret weapon – a piece of content or menu item virtually guaranteed to spike in both the ratings and among advertisers. And you could pull it out once or twice a year, especially when you needed one of those boosts.
McDonald's know they have that with McRib – a sandwich that first debuted in 1981. Now, with the help of technology, the marketing wizards at Mickey D's have gone all-out, using Instagram and well as their branded mobile app to hype the return of this culinary delight.
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The next time someone asks you for a great example of how a traditional brand can best utilize new technology to appeal to a younger audience, steer them in the direction of the nearest Golden Arches.
The fact is, for many radio stations, there may already may be something like McRib – a stunt, feature, regular morning show guest or some other element you could spring on the audience at just the right time of the year. Unpredictability and quality are the two keys – serving up something desirable to the audience, but not telegraphing exactly when it will happen.
Come to think of it, McDonald's has gone back to that same playbook again and again. Because it works. The Shamrock Shake – usually available in March around St. Patrick's Day is another highly anticipated off-menu offering. And in Philadelphia (only) that delicacy makes its return in the fall, coinciding with the start of the Philadelphia Eagles' season kickoff. You can read about this quirky tribute here.
And then there's McDonald's “Special Sauce” (sometimes called “Secret Sauce”) that adds another layer of mystery to the fast food brand's cult image. When you're going up against a bevy of similar eateries, you'd better have something special or secret up your sleeve. It is no accident this term has become synonymous with any brand's most unique asset – something McDonald's has focused on since Day One.
More and more brands – whether they're fast food joints or fine dining restaurants – are shaking up their menus, too. At least seasonally, their head chefs (their version of Program Directors) feel the need to be less predictable and rigid, keeping regular customers on their toes. And when there's a special seasonal item or entree, diners have something to look forward to.
Even logos or brand names themselves are becoming less apt to be etched in granite. Brands are showing more flexibility and a penchant for surprise. My first recollection of a “fluid logo” was the way MTV managed to change the mood and flavor, while maintaining the basic construct of their look. And we've discussed radio stations that change their names for a day to commemorate something special – like how WMGK transformed itself into WMCK when the Stones came to Philadelphia earlier this year.
WRIF here in Detroit has been doing this for decades with its special bumper stickers – perfect for celebrating a big band coming to the Motor City, an iconic stations event, a member of the airstaff, or the starts of a new season in Detroit sports.
When your logo is memorable, original, and well-etched in the collective mind of the audience, shaking up the ordinary becomes something the audience anticipates. And you might just create your own version of Beanie Babies or other collectibles.
We've talked about “special editions” in the category of merch, too. Today, more and more sports brands are branching out with special edition or tribute uniforms, whether it's throwback jerseys in NFL Football or salutes to the Negro League for MLB teams. Sports leagues are honoring the military and veterans with camo versions of their uniforms, another unpredictable move that delights fans, while strengthening the brand.
A couple of Saturday's ago, Purdue stretched this concept by honoring NASA. It turns out Neil Armstrong was a Boilermaker, part of a group of 25 astronauts who attended Purdue. Forbes writer David Ching wrote a great story about the university's 360° promotion and marketing effort.
It's all a part of a 150th anniversary celebration of the college – called “Giant Leaps” in honor of the moonwalk. And to make it special, the athletic department started with the idea of commemorative helmet, that soon turned into an entire all-white uniform modeled after NASA spacemen.
Like McDonald's, Purdue teased the uniforms on their social media accounts, complete with a trailer video. And from there, it went viral, especially on Reddit.
A surprise, a special edition, a new feature – all elements that turbocharge the fan base, the key to driving loyalty and word of mouth. (And by the way, the Boilermakers trounced rival Maryland on that special Saturday.)
It's Programming 101, but often lost in these precarious times where the rule of thumb is do no harm, keep it simple, dumb it down, and drum it into their heads. Yes, there's upside in listeners learning the four times a day you're giving away the secret text word. But there's also value in surprising them – now and again – with a trick play that tells them they'd better be paying attention or they just might miss something really cool.
There's is a vast difference between tactics – activities like contesting designed to merely create occasions – and strategies: the types of promotional campaigns that utilize all the different media touchpoints to lift a brand and inspire audiences.
As a result of McDonald's' leadership in the space, every other fast food chain is trying to find its version of the McRib. Your radio station should be, too.
And yes, I'll have fries with that.