3 marketing lessons from McDonald’s failed ‘Rick and Morty’ promotion

The fast-food chain brought back its beloved Szechuan Sauce, but locations’ inventory proved way too small for demand. Here’s what you can learn from the public backlash.

Fans of the TV comedy “Rick and Morty” aren’t laughing over McDonald’s latest marketing stunt.

The popular cartoon on Adult Swim details the adventures of scientist Rick Sanchez (often along with his grandchildren), and its creators, Justin Roiland and Dam Harmon, love Szechuan Sauce:

The sauce, created by McDonald’s as a limited-time promotion for the 1998 premiere of Disney’s “Mulan,” has grown in popularity since the show’s main character admitted his quest to find more. In July, McDonald’s even sent Roiland a jug of the sauce.

Then McDonald’s decided to up the ante by giving fans what they wanted: a taste.

The chain said that on Oct. 7, its locations would give out limited-edition packets of its Szechuan Sauce with the purchase of its buttermilk crispy tenders:

However, McDonald’s greatly underestimated the promotion’s response.

HuffPost reported:

Fans of the animated series “Rick and Morty” are livid at the fast food chain after it promised to bring back its 1998 Szechuan sauce for just one day but reportedly only gave 20 packets to each location. Some fans reported that some locations listed online didn’t have any packets at all, or sold out before the advertised selling time.

People lined up for hours on Saturday waiting for the famed sauce and were extremely disappointed to find out they had no chance at getting any.

The AV Club reported:

By all accounts, though, the one-day limited event didn’t go well in this or any other universe, presumably because someone in the McDonald’s supply chain didn’t realize how devoted the “cult” part of the phrase “cult show” can actually get. Multiple people are dragging the company on Twitter right now, accusing it of only sending about 20 packets (and even fewer of the promised promotional posters) to participating stores. There are worse horror stories, too; people are reporting fights breaking out, lines blocking traffic, conspiracy theories about McDonald’s employees stealing and hoarding the sauce, and reports of stores trying to sell packets at massively marked-up prices.

The Guardian reported:

Police were called to at least one outlet after people in queues for the sauce began getting angry and chanting “we want sauce”.

People turned to Twitter and YouTube to complain, posting videos of lines that wrapped around blocks and fights that broke out over the coveted sauce packets.

On Sunday, McDonald’s tweeted a statement promising fans more sauce:

The statement read, in part:

Between the costumes, the memes and the cross-state travel, you, the fans, showed us what you got. And our super-limited batch, though well-intentioned, clearly wasn’t near enough to meet that demand. “Not cool.” We agree. So, we’re gonna make this right. In the last 24 hours, we’ve worked to open any portal necessary. And it worked. Szechuan Sauce is coming back once again this winter. And instead of being one-day-only and limited to select restaurants, we’re bringing more—a lot more—so that any fan who’s willing to do whatever it takes for Szechuan Sauce will only have to ask for it at a nearby McDonald’s.

Here are three lessons PR and marketing pros can learn from the backlash against McDonald’s:

1. Be transparent.

A look at McDonald’s Twitter profile (which still features a cover photo of the limited-edition sauce) offers hashtags and links to a landing page for its chicken tenders:

Though “Rick and Morty” fans were OK with the promotion boosting sales of another product, they weren’t happy that McDonald’s didn’t state how “limited” the availability of its Szechuan Sauce would be.

Some called it “false advertising”; others railed at the chain for the PR stunt gone wrong:

When McDonald’s social media team reached out to angry consumers on Facebook, its response elicited further backlash:

Be up front about your promotion’s rules and restrictions. If you underestimate the size of consumers’ response, be quick to tell fans what you’re going to do to make it right. Otherwise, you might miss out on gaining potential customers—as well as losing current ones.

2. Involve employees.

Mike Haracz, McDonald’s manager of culinary innovation, took to Facebook and Twitter to share his excitement over the product’s return:

Haracz also helped spread McDonald’s mea culpa as the firestorm spread:

What better way to build excitement than turning to those in charge of a coveted product or service?

PR pros should also remember that employees are an excellent source of stories, as they regularly interact with customers and can relay promotions in a way that doesn’t sound corporate.

Make sure your employees have all the information they require to help you with your organization’s branding and storytelling efforts, including social media guidelines, product and service information, and answers to common customer service questions and complaints. By empowering your staff, you quickly boost your PR and marketing efforts—and more effectively put out fires.

3. Get your fans on board.

On Sunday, Roiland tweeted that he was “not happy” with how McDonald’s “handled” the promotion:

One way to help you plan for—and properly gauge the success of—your efforts is to partner with your fans. Influencer marketing doesn’t have to involve big social media names, either. Instead, turn to bloggers and Twitter, Facebook or Instagram users who know and love your product, so you can make informed marketing decisions.

If you’re using a popular show or a pop culture phenomenon to launch your PR and marketing efforts, reach out to the creators, as well.

What lessons would you take away from this situation, PR Daily readers?

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