Rick: “I’ll go out and find that some more of that Mulan Szechuan teriyaki dipping sauce.”

Morty: “What are you talking about?”

photo of people standing in long line

Rick and Morty is a popular adult-themed animated comedy about the smartest, and possibly most hilariously inappropriate, man on Earth. Dubbed the #1 show among Millennials, it airs on Adult Swim as part of their late night programming block.  The Rick and Morty Season Three premiere, “The Rickshank Redemption,” included a running subplot about Rick’s affection for (or more accurately, obsession with) a limited time McDonald’s McNugget & Szechuan sauce combo that was introduced in 1998 to promote the animated Disney movie, Mulan. What happens next should be a lesson about how predictive analytics should inform the steps any brand takes when presented with a potential viral marketing opportunity.

A chain of unexpected events followed that April 2017 Rick and Morty episode: McDonald’s sent writer Justin Roiland a bottle of the Szechuan sauce, Roiland tweeted out a picture of it, fans went crazy, launching multiple change.org campaigns for McDonalds bring back the Szechuan dipping sauce. You might’ve heard about it.

McDonalds’s also heard the tens of thousands of Szechuan sauce-loving Rick and Morty fans. They created a very limited time promotion to satisfy the audience, generating a niche marketing buzz opportunity for the McDonald’s brand in the meantime. For just one day, they promised, up to 20 packets of the now infamous sauce would be delivered to a handful of select locations. They hoped to win over a new generation of Millennials who were not yet McDonalds loyalists. The result, however, was not what McDonald’s expected. Instead of boosting demand, their under-delivery strategy caused chaos: Mobs of angry fans lined up in droves demanding the sauce, causing big scenes when the limited product ran out or wasn’t at a given location.  


3 Steps For Using Predictive Analytics To Assess Opportunity and Next Steps 

Being the data nerds we are here at Neustar, we wondered: Could data-driven marketing have made a difference? Our answer: most definitely. Here are three strategic steps McDonald’s could have taken to use predictive analytics and advanced segmentation to seize a viral opportunity like this one.

  1. The first step for any brand is to know its own consumers via its first-party data (most often its CRM): What kinds of customers buy what menu items? How often? Who’s most likely to be interested in Szechuan sauce based on past behavior?
  2. As a second step, brands should take a look at all the data available to them. In this case, McDonalds should have looked at Rick and Morty audience stats (how many viewers, what is the demographic, how does it line up with our customer segments, etc) 
  3. Third step: match that historical data against third party data to further assess and understand future expectations and behaviors, e.g. will more or less more consumers like Szechuan sauce in the future? This helps build an accurate 360-degree view of the market.

Outcome: Looking at the data this way, audience and the rate of consumption can help influence how much sauce to make to meet the demand. Even if the goal is to leave consumers wanting more, that strategy would need to be executed with some manner of precision: Not too much, but not so little that only a very small handful benefits (Millennials prioritize experiences over “stuff,” meaning it’s not just the supply to consider, but also the shared event that matters).

By connecting the dots of purchase behavior, any brand can get a pretty solid understanding of customers’ past habits, and should be able to then match that historical data against third party data to further assess and understand future expectations and behaviors.

McDonald’s may yet see residual returns on the Rick and Morty sauce frenzy and enjoy a bump in sales each time it airs, like the real Casa Bonita restaurant in Denver, Colorado that was featured on South Park did. Each time the South Park episode airs, the Casa Bonita staff knows it needs to prepare for at least a 10% bump in sales that evening, letting data drive their demand and staffing projections.

Using a data-driven, predictive analytics-based approach, any brand can be prepared to leverage a cult fan following and turn it into a wildly successful viral campaign. And it’s not too late for the Szechuan sauce either: McDonald’s will re-release a greater amount of sauce in early 2018. Let’s hope this time there will be just enough (but not too much) to go around!

As Rick would say: Wubalubadubdub!