CHICAGO — When Shawn Gund’s company, Moroch Partners, discovered thousands of McRib fans on forums and blogs, he and his colleagues came up with a non-traditional and innovative idea for McDonald’s. They championed the “McRib Farewell Tour” and targeted those same fanatics who were chatting about the boneless pork sandwich.

But McDonald’s executives initially pushed back after reviewing the tongue-in-cheek Internet marketing plan, “Save the McRib,” a facetious website sponsored by the Boneless Pig Farmers Association of America.

“This was a different kind of marketing,” Gund, an associate media director, told an audience of 100 at the educational session “Winning in The Age of Online Marketing” at the National Restaurant Association Restaurant Hotel-Motel Show May 21. Gund spoke alongside fellow panelists Sam Sebastian, director of the restaurant segment for Google; Ben Smith, interactive brand manager for Baskin-Robbins; Tim Schaden, chief executive officer of Fluency Media; and Bob Ford, senior director of marketing for Papa John’s International.

Gund says it was difficult for McDonald’s to accept the “tongue-in-cheek” campaign, but “we had to let them know this was a very specific group–the McRib fans–we were targeting. We were not broadcasting the message on primetime television.”

Sam Sebastian, a Google executive, leads a panel on online marketing at the NRA Show. Photo by Fred Minnick.

Of course, McDonald’s allowed the campaign and has since launched the McRib Farewell Tour II. And now, there are thousands of blog posts and message groups dedicated to the sandwich.
That’s the power of the Internet, Sebastian says. According to Google, almost 75 percent of U.S. consumers are online and nearly 70 percent go online to research restaurants. What’s more is 53 percent of U.S. consumers use search engines to research a restaurant compared to 10 percent who use newspapers.

“The Internet is the fastest-growing media in the history of the media,” Sebastian says. “Google and Yahoo! will continue to grow and make more options available,” so the Internet will only “get bigger.” Papa John’s and Baskin-Robbins realized this. That’s why the two mega brands earmark dollars for online marketing.

In its early days, Baskin-Robbins offered customers a free scoop on their birthday. But because of costs the program was discontinued. About two years ago, Baskin-Robbins brought back the Birthday Club and supported it with an email campaign.

“The Birthday Club has now grown to about one million members,” Smith says. “The Internet has done a great job driving that loyalty and same-store sales.” But Smith cautions operators to not do too much.

“People are sick and tired of being marketed at,” he says.

As for Papa John’s, the pizza brand admits its website “is not that attractive,” Ford says. But Ford says the No. 3 pizza chain is not about creating a pretty website; it’s about selling pizzas.

“We want people to see our deals, not be entertained,” he says.

Operators do not need a few hundred stores to do an online campaign, Sebastian says. With Yahoo, MSN, and Google, he says, restaurateurs can regionalize campaigns or target specific audiences.

“The nice part about search is there are no exclusives,” Sebastian says. “Every ma and pop can compete with McDonald’s (on the Internet).” –Fred Minnick