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The Right Kind of Wrong: Szechuan Sauce and the Hero’s Journey

By Mary McCool

Can a hot mess be manufactured? McDonald’s recently proved it’s willing to try. Earlier this year, the chain’s “Mulan SzeChuan Teriyaki Dipping Sauce” returned to cultural memory in animated comedy Rick and Morty’s season three premiere. Despite the condiment’s troubling mix of culinary traditions, or perhaps inspired by that very ridiculousness, bringing back the sauce became a cause for the show’s nihilistic fans to believe in. It was a golden (arches) marketing opportunity.

But the nationwide event celebrating its return spun into chaos, and the lack of sauce at many McDonald’s locations led to widespread social media outrage. The experience left Rick and Morty fans feeling like Jerrys, and observers outside the fandom puzzled by the strategy of the stunt itself and its aftermath.

So, what story is McDonald’s telling?

Whether the scarcity was planned all along or the genuine result of surprising demand, it represents a failure by McDonald’s to appreciate its audience, and build a meaningful connection with them. By callously exploiting fandom, the brand pushed the adage “there is no such thing as bad publicity” to its extreme.

 

The Descent into Chaos

The Szechuan Sauce debacle was a promotion to hype the release of McDonald’s new chicken strips, designed to capitalize on the momentum generated by Rick and Morty fans. Like all McDonald’s promotions, quantities were limited and “prices and participation may vary,” but McDonald’s appeared caught off guard by the response to the campaign.

McDonald’s must have known that demand would be high. Rick and Morty is the top-rated TV comedy of 2017. There were multiple online petitions with thousands of signatures calling for the sauce’s return, and roughly half a million engagements on show co-creator Justin Roiland’s tweet announcing McDonald’s’ personal gift of Szechuan Sauce to him back in late July. If McDonald’s did not expect the incredible response, why go to the pains of skirting copyright infringement to court fans?

Nonetheless, there was a severe shortage — with many advertised locations receiving no sauce at all. Once frustrated sauce-seekers began protesting on social media and in person with chants of “We want sauce,” the brand issued a tepid, 140-character statement. After all its promotional effort, McDonald’s demurred in replies to customers: “we could only make so many packets!” The next day brought a full, thoughtfully-worded apology in the language of the show, promising a more appropriately-scaled return of the sauce this winter.

 

The Secret Sauce

So, what’s the big deal if McDonald’s bungled a promotion into a boat-load of free publicity? If McDonald’s knew demand for the sauce would outstrip supply, it stands to reason this enraged fan base was all part of the plan — including a larger opportunity to make everything right with an apology and a bigger promotion next time, hopefully not involving the police.

The capitalist seams showing in McDonald’s fan service campaign gone wrong have triggered widespread cries of “wubba lubba dub dub”. But the rhythm of the whole campaign also mimics a timeless storytelling technique used in the show itself, the hero’s journey arc. Perhaps this journey of excitement and disappointment should have been recognized by the fans waiting in line for their precious sauce?

In drama, tales of redemption are always more powerful than stories where the hero doesn’t experience discomfort. Grit, growth, and obstacles overcome are hallmarks of this technique; the hero must complete her journey and return changed. Audiences love a comeback story. But a comeback requires a descent.

As Dan Harmon, co-creator of Rick and Morty puts it:

“Why this ritual of descent and return? Why does a story have to contain certain elements, in a certain order, before the audience will even recognize it as a story? Because our society, each human mind within it and all of life itself has a rhythm, and when you play in that rhythm, it resonates.”

Harmon is a proponent of the hero’s journey structure, and in the narrative arc he constructs for his characters, the protagonist has a need, goes through a difficult journey to address it, and returns changed. This journey is expressed as a circular model—a wheel—in which order turns into chaos, and continues the revolution to establish a new, improved order.

This essential formula can be repeated ad infinitum in the plots of books, plays, films, and TV shows. And, perhaps it was used in a promotional campaign to engage audiences by giving them a taste of defeat and an eventual triumph. As Harmon observes about this cycle:

“It will send your audience’s ego on a brief trip to the unconscious and back. Your audience has an instinctive taste for that, and they’re going to say ‘yum.’”

If McDonald’s was planning on using this formula to generate attention around a planned failure, and counting on the cycle to resolve in redemption, they would not be the first to do so.

 

The Successful Mistake

Greater attention can be won with well-orchestrated mistakes and recoveries than if nothing goes wrong at all. Popular culture is rife with examples, from Marilyn Monroe’s successful response to her early nude photos, to the carefully constructed saga of Taylor Swift’s music and media presence. These stories all fit the cycle: a hero stumbling through an unfortunate (media) incident, a need for recovery, and an ultimate redemption. It creates a pleasurable, shared journey that brings fans ever closer.

The subtle art of doing something a little wrong sees big results in audience engagement and free publicity. But it must be finely calibrated, so that the redemption outweighs the transgression. The Starbucks phenomena of misspelled names on customers’ cups is a perfect example. Customers en masse shared pictures of the iconic Starbucks cup with funny and perplexing misspellings of their names — generating a stream of free marketing for the brand.

Research has shown that while likes are cheap, seeing friends use a product increases the likelihood a consumer will use it themselves. Starbucks has not copped to its recurring name mistakes being policy, but, given the widespread nature of the trend, it’s unlikely that baristas just happen to misspell even the simplest of names in stores across different geographies.

Starbucks’s failure to spell a customer name correctly creates an experience for the brand that goes beyond the mere transaction of buying coffee. The purposeful mistake is a chance for people to share a joke over coffee, and creates a sense of community among customers. That it’s an easy campaign for people to spread organically is all the better: a classic idea fueled by contemporary delivery.

 

Understanding the Hero

Rick and Morty’s audience appears prime for McDonald’s to target; the show is beloved by millennials. Furthermore, studies show that while this group eats at McDonald’s in large numbers, they are overwhelmingly not likely to recommend it. McDonald’s may have thought it was taking a page from Starbucks’ book: creating an in-person experience and hoping millennials would evangelize for the brand by posting about it. But Rick and Morty fans are a cynical bunch, and the failure to put them and their needs front and center led to angry mobs chanting at McDonald’s employees.

The reactions of show creators Harmon and Roiland are telling. McDonald’s was happy to quote Rick and Morty heavily in the copy around the re-release, thanking the fans who have clamored for sauce. McDonald’s portrayed itself as part of the fan community, but ultimately slighted the source of inspiration and the audience they share.

If the shortage was genuine, it reflects a halfhearted attempt to deliver on a promise fans took seriously. If it was manufactured, it’s a cynical ploy to leverage affinity that blew up in everyone’s face. Either way, it signals the brand does not understand the hero of the story.

 

Missing the Point

The hero’s journey structure works so well in fiction because it allows us to share experiences we don’t necessarily want to have in real life. But in the real-life situation of a brand experience, it’s risky if not handled properly. Many people got to savor the terrible experience by reading about it, but much of the core audience, the true evangelists, actually experienced the unpleasantries.

The customer should always be the hero, and the experience enabled by the brand should benefit them first and foremost. But McDonald’s took away customers’ ability to enjoy the experience, instead leaving them victims to it. In doing so, and later “saving the day” by promising the sauce’s return, McDonald’s positioned itself as the hero— a surefire way to turn off consumers.

In doing so, they eroded some of the valuable trust their customers will need to camp outside stores when the sauce returns this winter.

While the campaign won McDonald’s a lot of attention over the news cycle and a modest uptick in stock price, it ultimately missed the opportunity to begin the return phase of the hero’s journey narrative. Instead, the brand is in the same place it was before: one whose most dedicated customers find associating with it too embarrassing to tell their friends. It succeeded in generating attention, just not the right kind.

 

Mary McCool is a manager at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.