McDonald’s, Szechuan Sauce and the Dangers of Hijack Marketing

by | Oct 19, 2017 | Branding, Marketing, Social

If you are like me, you have spent the past week wondering why people online are complaining to McDonald’s about sauce. If you are not like me, congratulations, you probably lead a much more fulfilling and well-rounded life.

A quick background for those of you who went outside this week: “Rick and Morty” is a wildly popular cartoon with an extremely avid fan base that is currently in its third season. In an episode that aired earlier this year, one of the lead characters referred to McDonald’s Szechuan dipping sauce, which McDonald’s sold back in the late ‘90s to celebrate the release of Disney’s “Mulan.”

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“Rick and Morty” fans latched on to this reference and started a viral campaign for McDonald’s to bring back the sauce. And it did … sort of. It attempted to emphasize that the sauce would be distributed as a “really, really limited release” at a handful of locations for one day only, but fans who showed up were unaware of just how limited the supply was. Crowds began forming hours before the 2 p.m. distribution time, and when the sauce supplies ran out almost immediately, people got angry. Videos posted on social media show hordes of angry fans chanting “We want sauce!” at nonplussed McDonald’s workers. The backlash continued to build, with many vowing to boycott the fast food chain before the company apologized and promised to re-rerelease the sauce again in a few months and in greater quantities.

What McDonald’s attempted to do is something known as “hijack marketing” – when a company seizes upon a cultural reference or a current event – anything with an existing audience and leverages it to promote its brand. In this case, McDonald’s realized that it was getting free advertising from a one-off joke on “Rick and Morty” and sought to maintain the momentum and appear in on the joke.

It’s not a bad idea in theory. For example, back in 2013 when the power briefly went out during the Super Bowl, Oreo’s conjured up a clever tweet that marketers still refer to today as a shining example of hijack marketing. The Netflix series “House of Cards” seized on the heightened political awareness surrounding the 2016 election by staging a series of presidential photos featuring Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, photographed by Pete Souza, President Obama’s photographer. When there is a clear connection between the product and the situation, and when the attempt is properly organized, hijack marketing can be an excellent way to grab attention without having to spend a lot of money.

McDonald’s did not necessarily make a bad decision in attempting to ride the wave of popularity of “Rick and Morty.” However, its mistake was being inadequately prepared. While McDonald’s did attempt to emphasize the “limited” aspect of its release, it’s probably safe to assume that it has since learned never to underestimate the power of hijack marketing in general and angry cartoon fans in particular. Hopefully, when they rerelease the sauce later this year, they will do so in adequate quantities.

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Lisa Umar
Lisa began her career as a China analyst in Washington, D.C., before moving to Phoenix to attend the Thunderbird School of Global Management. Since then, she has gained experience in account service, project management, branding, media placement and campaign strategy. Her clients have ranged from resorts to transportation companies and nonprofit organizations, as well as both B2C and B2B companies. She holds a dual B.A. in international affairs and Asian studies from George Washington University, as well as a master’s degree in international marketing from Thunderbird.

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