Does the McRib “Pork Price” Theory Make Any Sense?

Photo: Ruocaled

The McRib is the Brigadoon of the food world, and inspires similar passion. Consider Willy Staley‘s long and entertaining report at the Awl, which wonders if the McRib’s very occasional appearances are related to low pork prices. Dan Hamermesh found this line of thinking sensible too.

But … really? Aside from the fact that the correlation between McRib reintroductions and pork prices isn’t very robust, I always wondered if a firm of McDonald’s size could be so nimble as to strike fast on something like this. In the comments on Hamermesh’s post, a reader named Jeff Birschbach tells us what he knows:

I run a McDonald’s franchise. I cannot speak to the exact timing although I would say it is planned at least a year in advance. The most significant reason the sandwich comes and goes is the diminishing marginal utility. Over the course of the last five years the promotion has played out the same way. First few weeks we sell nearly 200 per day and near the end we may sell less than 50 per day. These quantities do not justify its placement as a core menu item and McDonald’s enjoys the pub and novelty of reintroducing sandwich. Sometimes the greedy nefarious corporation trying to make an easy buck isn’t that at all but just common sense business practices.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? To be fair, the Awl’s report acknowledged this possibility:

The last, and most obvious, explanation is the official version of the story: the sandwich has a cult following, but it’s not that popular. Like Star Trek, Arrested Development and that show about Jesus Christ returning to San Diego as a surfer, the McRib was short-lived because not enough people were interested in it, even though a small and vocal minority loved it dearly. And unlike these TV shows, which involve real actors and writers with careers to tend to, the McRib needs only hogs, pickles, onions and a vocal enough minority who demand the sandwich’s return, and will even promote it for free with websites, tweets and word-of-sauce-stained-mouth.

I will say this: the boom in McRib literature in recent weeks did its job on me. I went out of my way to go get one at a McDonald’s. (They had me at “pork slurry.”) Now, I happen to enjoy McDonald’s once in a while, much more than most of my McD-hating New York friends. But I have to say, the McRib was a major letdown. I was in Berlin recently and, at one of those omnipresent Christmas Markets, had a sort of authentic German version of the McRib. It was about 10 times better (and a bit cheaper, too). That said, the next time the McRib comes around, months or years hence, the excitement will probably be so high that I’ll forget how bad the last one was and go ahead and try another. 

 

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  1. RGJ says:

    I’m not sure how well-versed a McDonald’s franchise owner is in marketing expenditures, but I find it hard to believe that McD;s “enjoys the “pub (publicity) and novelty of reintroducing” a sandwich with the proven and repeated inability to sustain sales high enough to justify its existence as a menu item. There must be tens of millions of dollars involved in each of these efforts.

    I have seen theories that McRib is a “loss leader” periodically re-introduced to draw attention to what has to be a brutally stagnant advertising challenge (burgers and fries). So a considerable non-intuitive value has to be placed on anything that attracts media and attention to the wallflower Golden Arches.

    The problem with unravelling these questions is that McDonalds operates on such an unimaginably enormous scale that long term subtle marketing issues, like making an item an occasional brief cult offering, actually makes sense in the humongous complexity of the King of Cow Killers.

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