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The Makings of a Successful LTO

For you McRib fans out there, you’ll be happy to hear that the elusive limited-time offer (LTO) by McDonalds has once again found its way into 9,000 of their 14,000 illuminated menu boards.

Their famous sandwich that debuted in 1981 was last seen about a year ago before going into its yearly hibernation. You’ll find a McRib locator online along with a page denoted to “the latest sightings.” A little scary.

It made us wonder, are LTOs an incredible marketing tool, or a gimmick that makes fans want to boycott until their favorite meal resurfaces?

Considering how many restaurants take advantage of this strategy and the fact that 48 percent of all consumers try LTO menu items every month, we’re going to have to go with the former. Let’s take a look at just a few of the brands that have us hooked on limited-time offers and what your establishment should consider before jumping into the marketing phenomenon known as the LTO.

Successfully Offering LTOs


This is the key to making an LTO work for you—make sure that it’s buzzworthy, will generate social media chatter, and draw traffic. An example is BK Chicken Fries which first came out in 2005. Burger King decided, despite the products cult following, to discontinue the item in 2012. This prompted loyal fans to establish social media accounts on both Facebook and Twitter decrying the demise of their favorite fast food product. At one time, it was estimated that the product was mentioned every 40 seconds on some social media platform.

They came back as an LTO in 2014 until finally finding their way back to their rightful permanent position on Burger King’s menu in 2015. Now, they release LTO variants of the product that include Jalapeno Chicken Fries, Fiery Chicken Fries, and Cheetos Chicken Fries. Not bad, Burger King.


On average, 80 million photos are shared every day via Instagram. Pizza is the most widely photographed food, followed by steak and sushi. Of the top 100 brands in the world, 90 percent have an Instagram account. Engagement with brands is 10 times higher than Facebook, and 84 times higher than Twitter.

Okay, if we haven’t convinced you Instagram should be part of your marketing strategy, so be it.

We would like to stress, however, that if you are offering an LTO in order to get your customers to do your marketing for you, it helps to create a presentation that is photo ready.

A case in point is Starbuck’s Unicorn Frappuccino. It created a viral sensation on social media and a massive marketing presence across all platforms. 150,000 Instagram posts tagged with #unicornfrappuccino sprung up overnight. Why? The magic of the Unicorn occurred when one twirled their straw and watched purple, pink and blue colors transform before their eyes. Very Instagram-worthy.

Fear of Missing Out

Urgency is a great incentive. Short-lived, scarce, and limited are words that ignite our survival instinct. This works particularly well when embraced with the holiday spirit. St. Patty’s day brings us McDonald’s Shamrock Shake, Thanksgiving finds us longing for Starbuck’s Pumpkin Spice Latte, and Valentines makes us hopeful that Wingstop will once again offer its $25 Valentine’s Day kit. One Thousand kits sold in the first 72 hours of the offer. The sold-out kit featured a gift card and a heart-shaped box of chicken wings. Go figure. d

Going to the Extreme

I’m not much of a fast-food aficionado, however, I do admit that when I heard Arby’s was offering a New Zealand farm-raised venison sandwich with fried onions and a Cabernet steak sauce for just four days, I was quick to locate where this unique offering would be available. Fortunately, I wasn’t willing to drive 100 miles to the closest location. Seeing as the sandwiches sold out in as little as 15 minutes, I would have been truly disappointed.

Growing in popularity these days is the “Extreme LTO.” If we feel a sense of urgency knowing an item will be unavailable in a few months, just imagine our sense of immediacy when we only have one or two days to purchase a product that has received a ton of reviews on all of our social media networks.

This is not the LTO to use when trying out a new item or building business by adding menu variety. This is the LTO to use when you know your offer is buzzworthy. Keep in mind, four days is four days. If you create an extreme LTO that becomes extremely popular, you may suffer from severe angst when it comes time to take it off the menu.

Ineffectively Offering LTOs

Consumer Fatigue

Consumers can only take so much rollercoaster marketing strategies before throwing in the towel and settling for their tried-and-true favorites that never leave their side. An example of this can be seen, once again, with Starbuck’s LTO lattes and Frappuccinos. While the Unicorn Frappuccino was a huge hit, its successors—the Christmas Tree, the Zombie, and the Crystal Ball Frappuccino—got far less attention. According to Stifel analysists, the Crystal Ball was a social media bust that drove only 0.4 percent social media mentions as compared to the 6.5 percent received by the Unicorn. Starbucks announced this year that it would be reducing its LTOs by 30 percent.

Untrained Staff or Inconsistent Product

You can offer a remarkable, Instaworthy, unique LTO and then proceed to fall flat on your face if your staff is not trained to execute and create the dish that will live up to all the hype. This may very well be what happened to the Starbuck LTO drinks that followed the famous Unicorn. Some say the enchanted Unicorn did not live up to its promise—yes, it morphed into beautiful colors, but the taste was, to some, a little like Robitussin or a sour birthday cake. Was this the result of untrained staff or simply a company that was going for the wow factor and placed little emphasis on taste?  We may never know, we do know that this may be one of the reasons future LTO Frappacchinos lost their appeal.

While your procrastinating about your next possible LTO, consider Taco Bell’s Nacho Fries. This popular LTO created quite the stir when the fast-food chain tweeted, “This is your last call for #NachoFries. Don’t worry, they’ll be back next year.” It was the last two weeks of the promotion and fans began scurrying to their nearest Taco Bell believing the offer may be coming off the menu sooner than expected.

If you’re ready to boost traffic and drive sales, consider the elements that make an LTO successful and then create an item that depicts your brand at its best.


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