Jumping in on a pop-culture moment gone viral can pay off for restaurant operators. But with that attention can also come pain points, as McDonald’s was reminded this past weekend when the much-hyped return of its Szechuan Sauce—originally discontinued in the '90s—went sideways when the chain was overwhelmed by demand. Here’s how the chain went about saving face during the aftermath.
After McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce played a prominent role in the Cartoon Network show “Rick and Morty,” McDonald’s responded with a playful tease, giving away a few gallons of the sauce before bringing it back on Saturday for a one-day promotional event tied to the launch of Buttermilk Crispy Tenders. But the chain might have underestimated just how devoted “Rick and Morty” fans are, as massive lines formed at the select units where the sauce was being offered, with fans waiting for hours and driving across state lines to try and grab a packet.
The lighthearted campaign drew some schadenfreude on social media, as reports rolled in of unruly behavior from angry fans who weren’t able to get their hands on the sauce. As “Rick and Morty” fans wreaked havoc on McDonald’s social media comments and mentions, the chain swiftly responded, releasing an apologetic statement within one day of the promotion. As a mea culpa, the chain announced it would re-return the Szechuan Sauce this winter, but on a larger scale, so that “any fan willing to do whatever it takes for Szechuan Sauce will only have to ask for it at a nearby McDonald’s.” The apology spread quickly, with over 75,000 shares and over 28,000 likes on Facebook, and over 17,000 retweets and over 25,000 likes on Twitter. While some fans remained angry, others thanked the brand for listening to them and responding quickly.
You spoke. We’ve listened. Lots more #SzechuanSauce and locations. Details soon. And that’s the wayyy the news goes!Posted by McDonald's on Sunday, October 8, 2017
As the waves die down, a choppy relationship remains for some “Rick and Morty” fans who still feel jilted by the promotional snafu. And although McDonald’s was able to take control of the narrative with a quick response, it may still have to win back angered fans in order to translate its Szechuan Sauce marketing into sales. Given the response from McDonald’s thus far—which even gave a nod to the show’s time and space travel theme in its apology—chances are when the sauce returns, it won’t be quietly.
Whether or not the chain doubles down and promotes the re-return of the sauce as heavily, the brand will likely continue to court “Rick and Morty” fans. And since time travel isn’t viable in our current dimension, operators will have to tune in this winter to see the finale of Szechuan Sauce and whether this moment of viral marketing for McDonald’s has a happy ending.