Brands Need More To Be More Playful
I have a sixteen-year-old son, and therefore I know about the cartoon Rick and Morty. Forget about safe for kids, it’s probably not even a show that is safe for work. It is, however, wildly popular among the teen set, and I have to give the show creators props – it’s smartly written and funny, even as you feel like you must be the worst human being in the world for laughing.
A few weeks back, in fact in Episode 1 of Season 3, Rick revisits a memory from 1998 (you only need the first 30 seconds, it gets inappropriate pretty quickly after that) and makes a point to stop at a McDonald’s to load up on McNuggets and some Szechuan sauce, a special promotion that the fast food chain was running to support the Disney movie Mulan. Rick explains that McDonalds discontinued the sauce after the promotion and so he can only get it in his memories.
This sparked some heavy-duty nostalgia on Twitter, which culminated when McDonalds actually sent the writers of Rick and Morty a jug of the precious and apparently much-beloved Mulan sauce. I sincerely hope they didn’t just open some crate in some warehouse and pull out 20-year-old sauce, but that’s a different story. In the meantime, Twitter (and Rick and Morty fans) went nuts.
The next step in the exchange, of course, was for McDonald’s to announce that the Mulan sauce would be available for one day only at a limited number of restaurants for R&M fans. And, of course, this is where things went horribly wrong. McDonald’s has literally thousands of restaurants, and that’s not counting the franchisees, for whom participation in a stunt like this would most likely be optional. And while the company is a supply chain juggernaut in its own way, unless they really did have a warehouse full of the 20-year-old sauce, the odds that they were really going to get enough significant coverage to satisfy fans’ demand was pretty small.
But it was actually worse than that. Many restaurants were flooded with fans on October 7, the day the sauce was supposed to be available, and just as many had no sauce – or had received approximately 10 packets of sauce for demand that reached into the hundreds per restaurant at some locations. Some people reportedly drove for four hours or more to get their sauce, only to be disappointed. Things got a little ugly, and at some locations, they had to call the cops.
The hashtag #giveusthesauce started trending on Twitter, full of either packed restaurants that had to turn people away, or shots of competitors’ chicken nuggets that people claimed they bought because McDonald’s couldn’t deliver on the sauce promise.
Now, you might expect that my lesson to take away from this is “Don’t touch the fire if you don’t want to get burned” – don’t take risks like this as a brand, because, as it did for McDonald’s, it could backfire horribly.
Nope. Not the right thing to learn from this experience. Rather, it is evidence that if you can seize upon a moment, like an upswelling of nostalgia for something you used to make, you can move a lot of people and not only capture revenue from that moment, but cement a degree of loyalty from the people you managed to engage with. If McDonald’s had actually delivered on the promise, what kind of day would the restaurant chain have had? A fantastic day. And what kind of love would the brand have received on social media? An enormous amount of love – and with a prized demographic, too.
The important thing here is to make sure your social media channel managers aren’t so far removed from the rest of the business that they don’t have the flexibility or internal pull to capitalize on events that generate so much demand that meeting it could clearly pay off.
And, in fact, there are good examples out there where it worked – two that I can think of are Arby’s sponsorship of Jon Stewart’s last Daily Show episode after seasons of the comedian poking fun at the chain, and The Cheesecake Factory’s good-natured engagement with @Midnight’s Chris Hardwick after he took a slice of their cheesecake hostage.
Brands are always seeking opportunities to be “genuine” and “authentic” and “real” – and you can’t get more real than responding, real-time, to consumer engagement. I think McDonald’s severely under-estimated the power of Rick and Morty and its fans, and that turned into something unfortunate. But it’s not a case study for staying away from fun and having a personality. If anything, it’s just even more proof that you should be doing more of it. You just need to make sure you can do it well.