McDonald’s releases podcast to apologize for Szechuan Sauce crisis

Credit: Twitter

McDonald’s just released its own podcast, “The Sauce” — a three-part, investigative series modeled off of true-crime podcasts like “Serial” and “S-Town” that explains what went wrong during the Szechuan Sauce debacle last October. (The short version: McDonald’s offered a limited release of the long-retired sauce after it was featured heavily in an episode of the cult animated TV show Rick and Morty. But stores ran out within minutes, so fans rioted, harassed employees, and expelled their wrath on social media.) By following up with a podcast instead of a press release, McDonald’s has essentially created a new template for dealing with PR crises. They didn’t ignore the issue or simply post a “We’re sorry” tweet (though they did that too). They harnessed an opportunity to turn a marketing disaster into fun content that’s self-reflective and tongue-in-cheek.

As Jano Cabrera, SVP of Corporate Relations at McDonald’s told Adweek, “Good is fulfilling the promise we made to our guests. Better is doing so by acknowledging and apologizing for our mistake in an open, honest and transparent way. Best? To do all of that in a creative way.”

Oh, and they’re also re-releasing the sauce to locations across the US in far greater supply this time.

What this means for marketers

This move is a case study in image management leveraging content creation vs. just PR or advertising. While brands like KFC have handled cultural zeitgeist crisis management with just advertising, the podcast approach allows McDonald’s to keep fans engaged and hopefully laughing with the brand instead of at them. It’s also another great example of brands working with publishers and media studios to create branded content; McDonald’s teamed with Studio@Gizmodo and Onion Labs for this project.

Perhaps most importantly, the podcast lets McDonald’s take control of the online conversation, which veered so far against them back in October. And it arguably caters directly to their target audience: Rick and Morty fans are content consumers who like satirical humor, a.k.a. “The Sauce.”

A podcast won’t work for everyone

This is a unique case. McDonald’s is responding to a harmless mistake based on a pop culture phenomenon. It’s okay for them to release a little podcast. But this solution won’t work for every brand. Tide isn’t going to launch a cooking series called “Things That Taste Better Without Tide Pods” to tackle their own weird current cultural phenomenon. (Fingers crossed, at least!)

Marketers have to consider the context of their PR crises and deliver an apology that fits the offense. But like McDonald’s, they’d be wise to experiment with new technologies and content formats that keep fans engaged and coming back for more.

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Snapchat and Twitter experiment with new content distribution formats

Credit: Adweek

Outside of the Facebook-Google duopoly, Snapchat and Twitter are starting to launch some new eyebrow-raising programs. Contrary to the frequent press bashing of these two platforms as dead or dying, these developments could provide some new and unique distribution opportunities for content marketers.

Snapchat expands original video and e-commerce

Snapchat plans to double the amount of original video series it releases this year to 80 shows. Instead of relying solely on existing network TV partners, they’re enlisting publishers like Condé Nast and Vice Media to help make it happen. Similar to the shift planned for Facebook Watch, Snapchat doesn’t pay to produce its shows but instead splits ad revenue made from the content. This allows brands to distribute their series outside of Snapchat and expand reach.

These new series will be a departure from Snapchat’s existing reality and news-style content, which has come from major media companies like NBCUniversal and ESPN. Instead the new slate will include scripted series, a la Netflix and Amazon — but with 3-5-minute episodes. It should be noted that Snapchat tried this back in 2015 with its series, “Literally Can’t Even,” which was poorly received. Possibly they’re hoping to create higher quality content by working with established publications this time that already understand the Snapchat audience.

Snapchat’s other multi-billion dollar opportunity comes in the form of e-commerce. They recently partnered with Shopify to release an augmented reality lens and promote the new Air Jordan III Tinker sneakers, which users could buy exclusively within the app using a QR code. The shoes sold out within 23 minutes, proving that customers are willing to try new purchasing methods on mobile.

Snapchat is also trying to get small business to start advertising by offering them free ad credits and discounted services. As the company still finds its footing, Snapchat has arguably been too risky for small companies and startups to buy into (think the IPO floprecent redesign backlash, and competition from Instagram Stories). That’s probably why we’ve seen most advertising and content come from large brands, publications, and media studios. It will be interesting to see if small advertisers jump on board and stick with it, and what kind of Snapchat content they can create with more limited budgets.

Twitter finally harnesses its true power

Brands are surprisingly optimistic about Twitter going into 2018, despite ongoing issues like bots, trolls, and hoaxes. Perhaps it’s because Twitter is finally nurturing the areas where it can be distinctive: helping brands announce products, driving the discussion around major cultural events, and video.

Just this year, Twitter launched the Brand Bowl, identifying brands that drove the most conversation during the Super Bowl. And in video, Twitter continues to explore native branded content, live-streaming, and video around real-time events.

Twitter is also being more proactive about trying to fix its bot problem by changing its API to punish software services that deploy bots on the network.

Both platforms bet on video — creating opportunity for marketers

Both platforms are developing unique distribution opportunities with video that provide more ways for marketers to reach customers. This is particularly timely for content creators given the recent Facebook algorithm changes.

These platforms in many ways are finally starting to come into their own — even though they’ve been around for what feels like centuries in digital years. These moves are now starting to seem like significant ways for them to differentiate from the Facebook-Google duopoly to marketers and brands that control the ad budgets, vs just consumers who use the services.

Content marketers willing to pay more for safe ad placements

72% of CMOs are now feeling pressure on brand safety issues — and it’s is just as important an issue for content marketers as it is for paid media advertisers. As Absolut CMO Craig Johnson said, he’s willing to pay more for quality ad placements. He’s not just interested in the lowest cost per impression. He wants to launch high-quality ads in safe environment — even if it comes with a higher price tag.“Truly what we want to understand is how our content is affecting the behavior of consumers and whether what we do strikes a chord with consumers,” Johnson said. “And the only way for us to do that now is through direct conversations with people on whatever channel.”

Content distribution platforms like Outbrain are responding to this need. Having dealt with brand safety concerns in the past, Outbrain is now launching Sphere, a new widget that showcases content recommended by a closed network of “premium” publishers like CNN and Penske Media. Its aim is to surface and drive more engagement to high-quality content — outside of just Facebook and Google, which make up 60% of digital ad spend.

Brand safety is a concern everywhere

This is a major issue that is affecting all areas of marketing — the Interactive Advertising Bureau predicts that in 2018 “brand safety concerns [will] change everything.” In paid digital media, Facebook is still trying to recover from the fake news crisis of the 2016 election. In native content, Outbrain and Taboola are battling their own rocky history with mismatched article placements. And influencer marketing was shaken to its core after ads were pulled from Logan Paul’s controversial YouTube videos — and YouTube more broadly has cut off monetization at the knees for smaller channels because of the difficulty of policing content at scale.

Content + context = success

Content marketers need to be careful not just about content creation (don’t do the cooking series, Tide!), but also about where they distribute their content and how it will be interpreted in context. You can write a great article, for instance, but if it’s distributed next to a clickbait-y fake news ad, you’ll likely lose readers and even brand affinity. Content and context together are critical to success.

As Meredith Verdone, Bank of America CMO, said, “Our brand is our most important asset and having it adjacent to content that detrimental to our brand and that’s going to continue to be at the forefront [of our work.] You see any brand that has a sidestep miscue and people are very unforgiving. We’re going to be very conservative in terms of how we manage our brand.”

7 more browser tabs to open

  1. Publishers are going back to micropayments, but with different strategies inspired by new startups — including some models imported from overseas.
  2. 34% of Brits plan to exercise their right to be forgotten under General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Marketers will have to work much harder to reach them.
  3. CBS launches 24-hour streaming sports service — for free.
  4. “It’s going to end in tears” — Digiday notes that not all publishers are going to be able to scale a subscription model.
  5. Conde Nast is the latest publisher to launch an influencer network.
  6. Facebook is launching an accelerator to help local publishers improve their digital subscription offers.
  7. An overview of how Intel has evolved from an invisible “ingredient brand” to a consumer-facing brand.

Curated and published by Adam Orshan, Amanda Walgrove, and Matt Levin in New York City.

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