How McDonald’s Found a New “Authenticity” With McRib Memes
Jui Ramaprasad

Brand marketing on Instagram has come a long way since the platform first launched in 2010, more specifically since sponsored posts first debuted in 2013. With sponsored posts came the rise of the influencer marketing phenomenon in which popular Instagram users with large followings partnered with brands looking for more organic ways to reach customers. These brands would pay users — “influencers”— to promote their products in posts, many of which were not marked to indicate sponsorship, which called into question the authenticity of the influencer’s endorsement.

This led to the FTC to take action in 2017 (and again in 2019), asking brands and influencers to clearly indicate sponsored posts via hashtags such as #ad or #sponsored. Instagram itself eventually responded by providing a “Paid Partnership” tag that brands and users could add to posts. While this resulted in increased transparency, it did not resolve questions around authenticity.

This demand for authenticity has led to an interesting culture of its own: users continually come up with creative ways to appear more authentic while brands also grapple with the same challenge. The irony of all this, of course, is how much planning, effort, and strategizing go into presenting something (i.e., authenticity) which by definition is arguably supposed to be free, or relatively free, of those things.

Exit Influencer Marketing, Enter Meme Marketing

Despite the complexities that underpin it, influencer marketing isn’t likely to go anywhere anytime soon. Meanwhile, we may also be seeing the emergence of new ways to reach customers in organic ways. This is where McDonald’s recent meme-driven McRib campaign comes in.

The McRib sandwich, as readers surely know, is a BBQ pork sandwich sold by McDonald’s which the restaurant only makes available periodically. After being placed on and off their permanent menu a couple of times, starting in 2006 McDonald’s made the McRib a seasonal item that would be available for a limited period of time every year. The scarcity of its availability, however, combined with clever marketing and fans’ worries that it will once again be permanently discontinued, has contributed to the sandwich developing a cult following over the years, so much so that there’s even a McRib Locator website where hardcore fans can find McRibs during the off-season. This fervid devotion is counterweighted by an equally passionate distaste for the sandwich. Meanwhile, somewhere in the middle are the people who express an amusing ambivalence: they enjoy the taste while, at the same time, agreeing that the sandwich is “bad.” Underlying all this is a key element that sets the McRib apart from other polarized topics: humor. Beneath the jokes and insults is the widely understood sense that it’s ultimately all in good fun.

The McRib’s cult status and the humor that it inspires are integral parts of how McDonald’s has been able to bypass some of the complexities of “authenticity” and influencer marketing by tapping into the power of memes. Unlike conventional influencer marketing, which appeals to what social media users desire or aspire to be, memes appeal to shared experience. People engage with and share memes not because they covet or aspire to the images they see, but because they’ve experienced and/or relate to what they see.

In addition to this shared experiential aspect, memes generally rely on humor for their engagement and this too allows them to sidestep the complexities of authenticity. Given the ever-increasing sophistication of social media users, when they see an influencer flaunting a new pair of shoes, for instance, it’s only natural they question whether that influencer genuinely likes those shoes or is merely fulfilling their part of a business agreement. Despite McDonald’s having sponsored some of the McRib memes, there doesn’t seem to be the same kind of skepticism, perhaps in part because of the humor. If memes make you smile or laugh, sometimes even at the product’s expense, then perhaps authenticity becomes a less salient point. Or maybe the coexistence of the “love” and “hate” memes, and the shared experience and relatability of both, are all the perceived authenticity that users need.

Assessing the Effectiveness of McRib Memes

We have long known that peer influence works, and that influencer marketing works when influencers have credibility and inspire trust among their followers. The increasing access to data and developments in data science are leading to new ways for brands and influence marketing professionals to measure the value and effectiveness of specific influencer campaigns and partnerships. In influencer marketing this is often done by tracking clicks and conversions of links, hashtags, and/or promotional codes.

Memes are just another way of leveraging peer influence, but meme marketing specifically is a newer phenomenon. Though the fundamental role of peer influence is clear, there has been little research tracking and measuring the effectiveness of meme marketing specifically. The bottom line, at this point in time, is that tracking a meme’s full range of influence is not straightforward, be it a sponsored meme or a meme created organically by a user. At best, you can proxy for it through a number of imperfect ways such as tracking point-of-sale data following the posting of a sponsored meme, or tracking orders of the McRib on Grubhub, Uber Eats, or the McDonald’s app. The challenge, however, is separating out the effect of the popularity of the McRib on its own, especially given its cult following and its intermittent short-lived availability, from the impact of the meme itself.

The real underlying objective of meme marketing, however—and an advantage it can have over conventional influencer marketing—is virality, and virality is something that can be measured. Memes, moreover, are eminently shareable due to their humor relatability. They also tap into the power of social contagion. Memes have a tendency to beget other memes (as the recent wave of Bernie Sanders memes has so emphatically shown), and one well-designed sponsored meme can potentially inspire dozens of user-generated memes—potentially even bringing in consumers who were not previously fans of the product. Having users do the content creation for them is the holy grail for brands since users are far better at creating organic, authentic, and engaging content on their chosen platforms—in ways that specifically appeal to the tastes and sensibilities of their local audiences—than brands will ever be.

Further, from the brand’s perspective, as long as people are sharing and engaging, the memes (even the ones which make fun of the product) are doing their job. They are getting people to emotionally engage with the product, and the resulting buzz, even if it’s negative, can lead to consumers, including skeptical ones, buying it and posting their experiences on social media, thereby further adding to the buzz.

Does this mean that McDonald’s can repeat the same strategy next year and just flood the internet with McRib memes? Or that brands, regardless of the product or industry, can just indiscriminately use meme marketing? Certainly not. Due to the ever-evolving nature of the internet, and the sophistication of social media users, were McDonald’s to simply repeat their meme-driven strategy for the McRib next year it would likely not be as effective. And brands need to assess if the nature of their respective products, services, and industries are amenable to the light-hearted, often sarcastic or irreverent attitudes that underlie meme culture. It’s difficult to imagine how an airline that wanted to reassure customers of the safety of its COVID-19 protocol, for instance, could do so through memes. But the McRib’s $4 price is a low barrier to entry, and consumers may be inspired by the memes to try the product just so they can join the playful debate over it and be a part of the buzz.

Nevertheless, based on observable virality and user engagement, McDonald’s meme-driven campaign to promote its McRib during the 2020-2021 season is an obvious success. What we may be witnessing is the emergence of a new form of authentic influencer marketing, and this is clearly a case study that merits closer scrutiny and analysis, and which may yield useful insights for other brands seeking to draw from the same well.

Jui Ramaprasad is a Professor in the Decision, Operations and Information Technologies department at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.