The Szechuan Sauce Gap: What Happens When Branding Doesn’t Meet Operations

At the beginning of last month, McDonald‚Äôs created what started as a brilliant marketing campaign, and what ended as a ‚Äúscandal‚Äù with some very angry customers. The campaign was in reaction to an episode of cult fan favorite cartoon Rick and Morty, where character Rick begs McDonald‚Äôs to bring back a sauce that was around in the late 1990s. Szechuan sauce was all but forgotten by the general public until this episode premiered, and then it became an inside joke amongst fans of the show. Like a good brand, McDonald‚Äôs noticed the uptick in interest of this 20 year-long obsolete menu item, and decided to capitalize on it by offering it in stores for one day only.

On the day of the relaunch however, the campaign went about as bad as it could have gone. Some stores had nowhere near enough sauce to give customers, some stores had no sauce at all, and most of the stores’ employees had no idea why teenagers were throwing fits in line over the lack of sauce.

So, what went wrong?

For starters, McDonald’s greatly underestimated just how big of an interest there was in the Szechuan sauce relaunch. Fans were lined up hours before regular McDonald’s service started, waiting for their chance to get a packet of the sauce. But, the bigger and more pressing issue was the disconnect in the corporate marketing campaign and the local McDonald’s restaurant preparedness for following through on the campaign. Somewhere along the way, branding forgot to set expectations with operations.

What employers can learn from McDonald’s’ Szechuan sauce campaign mistakes.

When an employer’s branding team works on the employer brand, it’s often thought of from an external position—how can the employer be best branded in order to make candidates want to work for the company and make current employees want to stay with the company?

The problem is, branding teams can often get caught up in making the company look good, and forget that they should be making sure the employer brand accurately reflects what the company is really like. If a company has an amazing employer brand that doesn‚Äôt match up with the way the company operates, your candidates will feel lied to when their expectations don‚Äôt reflect the reality of how your company actually is, and current employees will call BS.

In order to avoid this gap between expectations of an employer brand and reality of the way an employer operates, here are three things your branding team should do when creating the employer brand:

  1. The branding team should step outside their own points of view and talk to other employees AND managers. When your branding team is only working off of their own experiences, your employer brand becomes very skewed towards a few experiences. Instead, the branding team should hear from as many employees as possible to know what their experiences are, and also a few managers to know what their takes are on the employee experience.
  2. Make sure there are specific examples of the employer brand‚Äôs components. If your employer brand positions the company as a good place to grow a career, find multiple instances of employees who have moved up in the company. It‚Äôs important to think specifically to avoid the trap of thinking your company operates one way when, in reality, it doesn‚Äôt.
  3. Don‚Äôt ignore the bad to focus on the good. An employer brand is meant to draw in attention and promote the employer in a positive light, but if you only focus on the good, there are going to be gaps between expectations and reality. You don‚Äôt have to explicitly state the negative, but think of ways to spin it to where the right type of candidate would be drawn in by the challenges the negative might present.

The branding team at McDonald’s could have easily set their operations teams up for better success. While your employer branding team can’t do exactly the same for the operations side of the company, they can make sure expectations of candidates align with what operations already is doing.

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