In 1998, as Disney’s beloved movie Mulan was released, McDonald’s engaged in a promotion of the film that included a limited-edition Szechuan dipping sauce. While largely forgotten since then by Disney and McDonald’s fans alike, Szechuan Sauce was brought back into the mainstream this past April when it was featured in an episode of popular Cartoon Network/Adult Swim show Rick and Morty.
In the episode, Rick and Morty travel back in time to 1998 in order to get their very own Szechuan Sauce. The episode drew a buzz online from fans of the show, and McDonald’s noticed, giving away three free tubs of the sauce and announcing it would launch a one-day promotion in stores on October 7. Unfortunately for McDonald’s, stores were given extremely limited selections of the Szechuan Sauce (some locations reportedly only received 20 packets) and Rick and Morty fans were outraged.
Taking to social media (and the streets in some cases), angry Rick and Morty viewers announced their disappointment in McDonald’s for the chain’s overpromise and underperformance of the promotion. McDonald’s responded in the days following and became a great example of crisis communications. Below are the Top 5 Ways to Handle a Crisis: Szechuan Sauce Edition.
1. Gather the Information
In the age of social media, it is easy to take some time and gather the information regarding a crisis from all sides. While you do want to respond fairly quickly to bad press, there is room to do your research and understand exactly what has happened and what is being said so that you can develop a proper, well-rounded response.
2. Understand and Speak to your Audience
Rick and Morty is filled with dark humour and pop-culture references, meaning fans of the show are also likely fans of these elements. What McDonald’s has done very well, since the first mention of the Szechuan Sauce revival, is speak in a similar language that ties into these elements and into the show itself. Following this trend, the restaurant’s response to the outcry was written much the same, in a way that speaks to the audience directly.
3. Be Transparent, but Control the Message
The key in any crisis communications is to be transparent about what has occurred, while controlling the narrative of the incident. In McDonald’s case, the company acknowledged that it underestimated the number of Rick and Morty fans by saying it was “truly humbled by the amazing curiosity, passion and energy this community showed to welcome back Szechuan Sauce…” In one statement, McDonald’s was able to apologize for what happened while keeping the narrative positive.
4. Respond Quickly
McDonald’s responded to the Szechuan Sauce disappointment within one day of it occurring, which is a good time frame for a mishap like this one. Any sooner and the brand may have missed some crucial details or messaging. Any later, and it may have faced further outcry about its silence.
5. Develop Next Steps
At the end of McDonald’s responding statement, a course of action was proposed – another promotion to occur in the coming months, in which the Szechuan Sauce would be made available in larger quantities, at more stores, and for a longer promotional period. While next steps may not always be a specific action, it is important to leave your audience with an idea of how the company is moving on past what has occurred.
While the Szechuan Sauce fiasco may be minor in terms of brand crises (and it has led to a surge in headlines mentioning McDonald’s), it serves as a good reminder not to overpromise, to fully understand your audience and their wants before committing to a promotion, and to respond quickly and transparently if things do go wrong.