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The Brilliance of McDonald's Szechuan Sauce 'Fiasc…

If you know Rick and Morty, then you’ll know that in the third season there’s a story about how Rick broke out of prison and split up his daughter’s marriage and then is involved in a huge multi-dimensional battle involving other Ricks and when it ends Morty gives a speech that blames it all on McDonald’s Szechuan sauce. Look — I’m not about to explain Rick and Morty to you. Just watch it.

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You won’t be alone. There are many people who love the Adult Swim cartoon. This became apparent last weekend when, with everything that’s been going on in the world lately, Rick and Morty fans took to the streets to protest — even violently in some places — a shortage of Szechuan sauce at McDonald’s.

Yes, Szechuan sauce.

It seems that McDonalds, after hearing about Rick’s alleged love for its sauce (which was briefly sold as part of a movie promotion back in 1998) decided to bring it back for a special day as a special promotion. That day was last Saturday, and legions of the show’s excited fans drove many miles and even across state lines to grab a packet in honor of Rick. Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out as planned.

The fast food giant underestimated the vast demand for the sauce and not only undersupplied its stores but failed to tell its employees about the oncoming wave of crazy Rick and Morty fans that were about to invade. The lack of product (and understandably of interest by many McDonald’s employees) angered the show’s fans. People got hurt. The police were called. Lawsuits were even threatened. Over Szechuan sauce. 

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Many think this was a marketing debacle for McDonald’s. Au contraire. Planned or not, it was marketing genius.

Why? Because in this world of overwhelming popups, commercials, videos, displays, bells, whistles and buzzings, gaining national attention for your product — any kind of attention — is near impossible if not prohibitively expensive for most companies. Even McDonald’s. Yet, the fast food giant paid nothing for this attention. There was no official tie in or advertising. It was purely a social media campaign aimed at an adult audience that spends a lot of time watching social media when they’re not watching cartoons.

Sure, the news seemed negative — but for whom? The company who under-promised or the customers who overreacted? We’ll let that debate play out online. Meanwhile, McDonald’s is seizing the opportunity. Not by apologizing, but instead by admitting that the situation was “not cool” and promising an ample supply of the sauce this winter.

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More genius. Because guess what’s going to happen this winter? McDonald’s is going to deliver lots of Szechuan sauce packets to its restaurants around the country. The company will better inform its employees. It’ll certainly launch social media campaigns around the event and maybe even spend a few bucks to advertise on Rick and Morty. What will happen? All those people protesting and complaining and wanting to sue McDonald’s will quickly get over their anger and then travel back to McDonalds to buy Rick’s beloved Szechuan sauce along with a 12-piece McNuggets and hey, why not, a Big Mac, too.

McDonald’s got national attention by creating a social media stir and created thousands of conversations in a targeted demographic and all because it screwed up a promotion. Sure, it took its hits — but that’s almost always the case when you play in this arena. But, now it’s positioned to turn this “debacle” into a future marketing promotion that is guaranteed to be successful.

Smart companies know that even bad PR is good PR and that the trick is turning these lemons into lemonade. Or honey mustard into Szechuan. Whatever. You get the point. And I bet you’ll try that sauce, too. I know I will.

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