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Cameos, McRibs and Controlling the Laws of Economics

Laws of Economics

You don’t need to be Milton Friedman to understand the laws of supply and demand. You never really even had to have taken an economics class.

Intuitively we know that, for example, when gasoline is in low supply the prices will go up because, let’s face it, demand isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Supply, demand and prices will always be intertwined in an ever-lasting relationship. Sometimes demand drives supply. Sometimes supply drives prices.

But what if you could artificially create demand by tinkering with the supply?

That is exactly what companies like McDonald’s and Starbucks do. And there is no reason you can’t do the same.

McDonald’s and Starbucks are Messing with Your Head

Every so often McDonald’s releases the smothered creation they call “The McRib.”

In a similar fashion, Starbucks makes their “Pumpkin Spice Latte” available for a limited time (the difference being that this release is seasonal and predictable).

They are artificially creating scarcity!

Artificial Scarcity?

Let’s be honest. There is nothing that is actually scarce about either the McRib or a Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Is there something scarce about the “meat” that is used in the McRib? I don’t think so. The ingredients used in that work of art are regularly available.

Starbucks can claim that the Pumpkin Spice Latte is seasonal because pumpkins are. But are they using real pumpkins in their latte?

To be honest, I don’t know. But did you know that many companies use “natural flavors” to make their food smell and taste incredibly delicious no matter what they are made of? These chemicals are definitely never scarce.

This is a perfect instance of scarcity being a façade – induced by the company pushing the product.

What Came First?

This is the perfect case of “what came first.”

Do you want the Pumpkin Spice Latte because it is so seasonal and reminds you of fall? Or do you want it because Starbucks tells you its seasonal by only making it available for a limited time?

Even if you give Starbucks the “seasonal” argument, what makes a McRib so seasonal? Hmm…maybe that’s why their releases of the sandwich are so scattered and unpredictable.

So ask yourself why people really want these products.

So Why No Regularity?

If these products show such great success in the time they are available, why are the companies doing this? Why not just make these items a regular mainstay on their respective menus?

Well, that’s something you have to ask the companies. They both have huge marketing departments that most likely have their reasons.

But here’s a theory…

Maybe these items wouldn’t sell well in the midst of the other options on the menu without the artificial scarcity.

Maybe without the looming threat of disappearing yet again, the McRib would get no traction and just get destroyed by the Big Mac.

And the McRib isn’t the only sandwich that makes cameo appearances on the menu every so often.

These “cameos” on the menu are designed to create scarcity, drive demand and build a crowd.

I’d be lying if I said the commercials of people excited for the return of the McRib didn’t make me want to go get one just a little bit (and I haven’t been to McDonald’s in years).

If people go to buy the scarce item, and maybe come back a second time, and a third, eventually they become a regular customer – even when the ‘scarce’ item is gone.

Do You Have a McRib?

This tactic clearly works well. People inherently want what they can’t have. And making something scarce is simple. All you need to do is limit the supply, or limit the time that it is available.

This drives people to take action.

If you own a business, you probably have a standard set of products or services that you offer on a regular basis. These are your menu mainstays.

But are you creating “cameo” appearances for your menu? Something scarce. Something limited. Something that will take people to drive action!

Supplementing your regular offers with additional limited time, or limited quantity, offers can drive people to make a purchase.

And once the first purchase is made, it’s easier to make the second, and to eventually turn someone into a regular customer.

The Caveat

You have to do your homework and know your audience.

Some things are scarce, or are in limited supply because no one wants them.

Providing a limited offer that isn’t right for your target audience will accomplish one of two things.

It will not sell at all, and possibly worse – drive people away from your business.

Or it will sell to customers that aren’t your target audience – so they will not become regular customers for your “mainstay menu.”

Scarcity by itself doesn’t create demand; it has to be coupled with quality. Targeted quality.


So go ahead. Make an offer to your customers. And then take it away. Its amazing what a little scarcity can accomplish.

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