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Don’t Underestimate Your Customers: 3 PR Lessons from McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce Snafu

October 20th, 2017

New York Comic Con is big business. Every October, production companies, celebrities, and vendors fill the Javits Center on W. 34th Street in Manhattan to cater to the legions of fans that dress up as their favorite fictional characters to enjoy exclusive access to desirable content and merchandise. The event continues succeeding and growing year after year, because its organizers know their audience and strive to deliver an optimal experience.  

Unlike New York Comic Con, however, McDonald’s faced a crisis when they recently failed to comprehend the importance of fan service. The fast food giant announced they would rerelease their Szechuan dipping sauce on October 7 for one day only at select locations in the United States as a promotion for their new Buttermilk Crispy Tenders.  

A dipping sauce? Like the honey mustard you order with your chicken nuggets? Yes, this caused a crisis for them.  

The fast food chain decided to bring this obscure menu item out of retirement in response to increasing demand from fans of the show Rick and Morty after it was referenced in the third season’s premiere episode earlier this year.  McDonald’s originally released Szechuan dipping sauce in 1998 as a cross-promotion with Disney for the film Mulan. During the episode, the titular Rick tells Morty that the true reason behind their time-traveling, dimension-hopping, and alien-shooting adventures was so that he could track down the discontinued sauce. That was enough to spark flames of nostalgia and curiosity in viewers’ minds.  

McDonald’s did not expect a late-night cartoon to have as many passionate fans as it did. They failed to mention that participating locations would only receive 20 packets each. This caused an outrage when hundreds of fans showed up at some of these establishments and led to disgruntled customers advocating a boycott against the restaurant chain in retaliation.  

Following this chaotic day in the fast food industry, McDonald’s apologized for underestimating the show’s fans and their desire to try this long-extinct condiment for themselves. They promised that they would bring the Szechuan sauce back this winter for more than one day so that more people could have an opportunity to try it for themselves.  

Time will tell whether McDonald’s will hold up their promise or not. Until then, let’s examine the lessons we can learn from this PR stunt gone wrong.  

Don’t Underdeliver to Stakeholders. Ever.

According to a Yahoo! Finance report, Rick and Morty is the highest-rated show in Adult Swim’s history. The same report stated that when the network livestreamed the Season 3 premiere on their Facebook page for April Fool’s day, the video generated 43.3 million impressions and over 8 million views combined. If even a fraction of these viewers were seeking the Szechuan sauce on October 7, that still accounts for significant amount of customers that were underserved by a corporation that boasts that its service to billions.   

When gearing up to launch your next PR or marketing campaign, its important to gather as much accurate data on key stakeholders as possible. Conduct formal research, analyze data, survey your audience members, and use these insights to create an informed decision. McDonald’s could have easily hosted a poll on their Twitter account to gauge how many people would have actually wanted the sauce they were ultimately denied access to. Overserving your target audience is better than underserving them. Always.  

Always Prepare for What Can Go Wrong

McDonald’s did not have a contingency plan in place; as evident in their formal apology. One could assume they also failed to take measures to prevent any crisis that could arise from delivering such small supply of a highly demanded item.  

This PR stunt was inherently reactive. McDonald’s wanted to cater to what they believed was a niche group of late-night comedy fans after they requested the restaurant chain revive the Szechuan dipping sauce. If they had performed a proper risk assessment, they could have addressed a simple question like: “What if we run out too soon?” Even people that do not watch the show could want to try the product, since McDonald’s promoted it to everyone on their social media. It was intended for what they thought was a small group, yet advertised to their millions of followers.  

Be Transparent About Your Solutions

In fairness, McDonald’s did offer an apology that promised a tangible solution to their own shortcomings. They addressed the issue head-on and were willing to admit their mistake. The company thanked the disgruntled customers for passionately demanding one of their products, expressed disappointment that they failed to deliver on these expectations, and said that they would reintroduce the sauce to the menu in a more semi-permanent fashion for the holiday season at all locations. This statement gives stakeholders a reason to trust that the brand and provides a timeframe for them to expect resolution. Considering the Szechuan sauce already generated one crisis for them this year, McDonald’s will likely want to avoid a similar scenario before 2018.  

Are you gearing up to launch a new marketing or PR campaign for your business? Contact us today to see how we can help you.  

Michael Bateman

Michael Bateman handles social media, content creation, and media relations needs for multiple accounts at Springboard. When he's not working in the office or sitting in grad classes, you can find him blogging, exploring Asbury Park, or watching New York Islanders games.

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