Free earned media. It’s the crown jewel of the marketing world. And it really doesn’t get much better than the McDonald’s-Rick and Morty-Szechuan-Sauce story that’s unfolded.
The SparkNotes summary: Hit TV show with a dedicated following, Rick and Morty, referenced an old sauce that McDonald’s once served years ago as part of a tie-in with the 1998 Disney release of Mulan. Fans then became wildly curious about the sauce that had been discontinued nearly 20 years before, with even some McDonald’s higher-ups chiming in about its fabled existence.
It became a viral joke that had the McDonald’s name attached to it at every corner. And of course, they played along. But, they did it in such a natural way that fans, consumers and the like weren’t turned off by it becoming too much of a marketing grab.
In advance of the premiere of the new season of Rick and Morty, McDonald’s sent Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland a bottle of that now-infamous Szechuan sauce, complete with hilarious description and label that played right along with the show. Justin Roiland’s tweet of the bottle and its packaging has, to date, garnered 141,781 retweets and 339,146 likes!
But the pursuit of earned media like this almost never yields such incredible results. So what was the difference? Simple: McDonald’s never overplayed their hand. They just played along. And that’s a very big distinction.
Instead of latching onto the sudden and unexpected conversation around their decades old sauce, McDonald’s did no more than what felt natural. They didn’t milk it for some tired, multi-month campaign. Or try to turn it into a hashtag. Or any of the other marketing gimmicks that consumers now roll their eyes at. They put some effort into creating the packaging and remaking the sauce, and then let the internet do its thing. It’s no coincidence that, while they later released a few more bottles to fans via branded posts, the most viral post wasn’t even theirs. They just sent the bottle to Justin Roiland and trusted that his tweet, free of corporate hashtags and paid promotions, would do the rest. And they were right.
It’s an important lesson in an age where brands haphazardly try to insert themselves into the conversation. Don’t overstep your role as a brand. Just play along.