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As McRib Returns, McDonald’s Must Balance Modern Digital Demand vs Nostalgic Appeal

At a time when many restaurants are taking advantage of limited-time exclusives and much-hyped menu items to drive consumers to their digital channels, McDonald’s is taking a more omnichannel approach. With the highly anticipated return of the McRib sandwich, the company is making a play for both younger, tech-savvy consumers and for older digital holdouts.

Announcing on Thursday (Sept. 30) the sandwich’s return to menus in November, the company highlights two opposing points: on the one hand, its digital availability, and on the other, its nostalgic appeal.

Regarding the former, the company is showcasing the sandwich’s accessibility across off-premises channels, noting in a news release that it will be available “via carry-out, at the Drive Thru, on the McDonald’s App and through McDelivery,” and encouraging consumers to enroll in the chain’s loyalty program.

Presumably the sandwich will also be available to on-premises customers, though the news release does not confirm this, and McDonald’s did not respond to a request for comment. The fact that on-premises is the only channel that the brand neglected to mention suggests the extent to which the company hopes to woo digital customers with this announcement.

In the first half of 2021, McDonald’s saw its digital sales rise 70% year over year, lapping a difficult comparison to the early months of the pandemic. In recent months, the company has been driving digital sales through its loyalty program, which rolled out nationwide in June, the culmination of years of laying the groundwork.

See also: Paytronix CEO: McDonald’s Rewards Program May Not Be The Latecomer It Seems to Be

Still, the chain’s digital customer base leaves out a significant portion of restaurant consumers. Research from PYMNTS’ report, The Bring-It-To-Me Economy, created in collaboration with Carat from Fiserv, finds that, while 61% of consumers are ordering restaurant food online, the majority of these digital ordering customers are younger. While three-quarters of Generation Z consumers order food online, only 42% of baby boomers and seniors do so.

Read more: Bring-It-to-Me Economy Ascends as Consumers Embrace Home-Centric Lifestyles

Given that this latter group accounts for 36% of United States consumers, McDonald’s would be losing a huge portion of its consumers if it focused solely on digital, to the exclusion of the non-digital customer. This is where nostalgia comes in, allowing the chain to appeal not just to young, digital fans, but also to older consumers, i.e., to have its McRib and eat it too.

“In the 80s, the masterminds behind McDonald’s food innovation had a truly unique idea: an undeniably delicious sandwich that could be enjoyed during the colder seasons,” Mike Bullington, senior archives manager at McDonald’s, said in a statement. “The McRib is one of the most iconic sandwiches of the last four decades.”

Tapping an archivist to give the official comment for the press release gives a clear sense of how McDonald’s is positioning the return of the sandwich, focusing on its familiarity. For contrast, last year’s statement was given by Vice President of Menu Innovation Linda VanGosen.

In the same vein, much of the messaging around this sandwich centers the fact that 2021 marks the fortieth anniversary of its initial launch. By focusing on the origins of the sandwich, recalling its 1980s origins, the chain can maintain the consumers who feel alienated by the dramatic changes seen in the restaurant industry in the past couple years, offering the comfort of decades-old familiarity.

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