McDonald’s brings back Szechuan Sauce as mobile app exclusive

Dive Brief:

  • McDonald’s is bringing back its limited-run Szechuan Sauce starting March 31, this time as an exclusive item for mobile app orders, according to a news release.
  • The brand teased a “sauce drop” on social media in recent days, encouraging consumers to text the number 707-932-4826. Doing so links to the profile of “the person who runs the McDonald’s account,” which replies by asking to be added to the user’s contact list while sharing additional details about the promotion.
  • McDonald’s has only sold Szechuan Sauce three times previously, notably around a “Rick & Morty” episode in 2017 that resulted in supply shortages and outraged fans. The chain is now leveraging the cult-like mystique behind the condiment to drive downloads of its app, an increasingly important channel for growing sales and loyalty.

Dive-Insight:

McDonald’s is betting Szechuan Sauce remains alluring enough to compel people to download and sign up for its mobile app. Additionally, the brand worked with Community, a communications platform that uses SMS to help marketers reach customers on a one-to-one basis, on the texting portion of the campaign.

The strategy underpins how important mobile channels have become to the world’s largest fast food chain, as the pandemic has enshrined on-the-go ordering habits for a wider base of consumers. Those preferences are particularly strong among the digitally native Gen Z cohort that restaurant rivals are similarly ramping up their efforts to win over.

The Golden Arches owner in recent days has stoked anticipation for the return of Szechuan Sauce with images teasing the packaging on social media and the ability to text back-and-forth with an account claiming to be in charge of McDonald’s online postings. The mobile number linked in the promotion engages in casual conversation with the customer, referring to them as “bestie” and saying things like, “Brian from legal is telling me I need to ask what time zone you live in so I don’t text you in the middle of the night lol.” Those who want access to the sweet-and-savory dipping sauce must also download McDonald’s app, where it will be available as an add-on for orders of Chicken McNuggets for a short window starting at the end of the month.

McDonald’s placing a bigger focus on SMS outreach marks a switch-up for its marketing behind Szechuan Sauce, which first hit the market in 1998 as part of a tie-in to the premiere of Disney’s “Mulan.” The brand then brought back the menu item in 2017 after it was referenced on “Rick & Morty,” with titular mad scientist Rick rambling about his love for the sauce. Fans of the animated comedy series subsequently rushed to restaurants, but limited availability of the item led to frustrations and even people protesting in stores that never received the condiment. McDonald’s eventually documented the fiasco in a three-episode “investigative” podcast series that promoted Szechuan Sauce’s third drop several months later.

McDonald’s is not playing up any associations with “Rick & Morty” this go around. Wendy’s, a rival, has a years-long partnership with Adult Swim related to the edgy sci-fi comedy. The two together last week opened a “Rick & Morty” experiential activation at Resorts World Las Vegas to capitalize on the hype around the March Madness basketball tournament.

McDonald’s digital sales topped $18 billion last year, bolstered by programs like MyMcDonald’s Rewards and its mobile app.

Clarification: This story has been updated to provide greater clarity on McDonald’s partnership with Community on the Szechuan Sauce promotion.

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