What actually happened when McDonald’s tried to bring back Szechuan dipping sauce?
On the October 7th McDonald’s had an amazing, maybe once-in-a-generation, chance to win over jaded Millennials. But they failed, dramatically.
Since the new millennium, McDonald's has steadily lost its relevance to younger audiences. Younger generations eat at McDonald’s much less frequently, as just 20% of millennials have tried the company’s flagship Big Mac. Aware of this, McDonald’s has been fighting to claw back any cultural currency, even forming a new agency, “We Are Unlimited,” dedicated specifically to this goal. This new agency has been spending millions to make McDonald’s cool--or even minimally relevant-- as it was many decades ago.
Then a very strange thing happened. On the 1st of April, “Rick and Morty,” one of the highest rated TV shows in the Millennial demographic, used the eponymous character Rick to throw a shout-out to McDonald’s out-of-production, originally-to-promote-Mulan, Szechuan dipping sauce:
The episode ends with Rick going on a long and unhinged soliloquy about the sauce. The internet went crazy.
On the October 7th, at 2pm, McDonald’s relaunched the sauce for one day, and one day only. It was such a popular event that it generated almost three times more Twitter traffic than Comic Con. Just like an iPhone launch, the Szechuan sauce brought people out of their homes to camp in front of McDonald’s.
To see what this was all about, I went to one of the New York Locations. I’m a fan of “Rick and Morty,” and I don't hate McDonalds, so I went to see what was happening. But honestly, I hoped that I might be one of the lucky ones, to get the sauce. That illusion was quickly shattered: the line to McDonald’s went around more than one corner, preventing anyone but “Rick and Morty” fans from even getting into the location.
There were only 1,000 packets of the sauce in all, according to McDonald’s employees, and the few restaurants to offer any only had supplies of 20 to 40 packs. These select locations were also offering posters and stickers, all of which were gone by 2:10pm.
Those who actually got the sauce arrived to McDonald’s long before the official opening of the special event. These dedicated fans were given bracelets, which were the required proof for purchasing the sauce. As one of the unlucky many in line mentioned, “I had an easier time getting an iPhone 8.”
Die-hard fans of Rick & Morty were not totally out of luck: there were enterprising hustlers scalping the sauce. Some deals closed at $75, a low figure compared to the astronomical prices on eBay, which neared $600 for a packet. The lack of supply and overpriced re-sale market left the many who didn't get the sauce very angry and unhappy.
Doesn't this situation feel like a lost opportunity for McDonald’s? Create a significant buzz among the very demographic that they repeatedly failed to reach, then drop the ball by acting like the whole thing is an afterthought? Whatever was the reason for this disappointing behavior -- McDonald’s arrogance, or underestimation of the power of pop-culture, or both-- it left passionate, vocal Millennials disappointed, angry and heartbroken.
Not cool! Disqualified!!