Inside McDonald’s New ‘Serial’-Style Podcast Telling Its Side of the Szechuan Sauce Story

The brand wanted to apologize creatively and transparently

The fast-food company created a podcast about Szechuan sauce. McDonalds
Headshot of Kristina Monllos

Rick and Morty fans can rejoice. Szechuan sauce is returning to McDonald’s. Starting today, over 20 million packets will be available at McDonald’s restaurants across the country.

Last week, the company released a three-episode podcast called The Sauce that details what went wrong in October when the fast-food behemoth tried to bring back the beloved sauce. McDonald’s worked with the Studio@Gizmodo and Onion Labs on the podcast, which made its way into the iTunes 100 podcast chart, peaking at number No. 94 less than 24 hours after its release, according to a representative for the brand.

Adweek caught up with Jano Cabrera, svp of corporate relations at McDonald’s, to learn why the company wanted to release a podcast about its bungled attempt to cash in on the Szechuan sauce craze.

Adweek: Take us through the logic here. Why did McDonald’s want to do a podcast? 
Jano Cabrera: 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 and hence, podcast.

But why do one about Szechuan sauce? Did this debacle really need that much attention?
Honestly, this did reach the levels where I think this was merited. This one moment in time resulted in historic levels of online conversation for us as a brand and certainly some unprecedented activity in the restaurants. With that, naturally, comes questions like how did this happen, why did it happen and what did you learn? We are aiming to answer all of those and more.

What does this do for the brand?
I’d like to think that all brands have qualities that are identified with them—Nike with athleticism, Apple with creativity. McDonald’s has permission to have fun, and we are embracing that. That said, we also recognize that we genuinely disappointed our guests and as a customer-first brand that does not sit well with us. We wanted to make amends, and we wanted our guests to hear that, authentically and directly from us. This format allows that.

Who are the agencies behind it?
Golin, a longtime partner for McDonald’s. They, like us, are committed to grounding their work in what is relevant and resonates with today’s customers. If you look at the landscape of today, it seemed only natural to put forward something that walks the perfect line between parody and an actually compelling narrative. That last sentence, by the way, is what I want on my epitaph.

Are you emulating Serial, S-Town, true-crime podcasts? If so, how did you do it?
If you want to be a beloved brand, you need to start with what people love. Serial, S-Town, even Vandal were all inspirations precisely because they are very much in the zeitgeist of today. If it matters to our guests, it matters to us.

How revealing is the podcast?
I can’t imagine anyone listening to that podcast and thinking that we held anything back or didn’t address any question they would have. We know we needed to make amends, and that started by making an internal commitment to answer the tough questions each of us as individuals already received and answered from friends and family.

Anything else we should know?
We’re not done. If you enjoyed this approach, stay tuned. We have more planned. It may not be on The Sauce. It may not be a podcast. But I can assure you that it will be in the spirit that we put this forward, which is to say fun and unexpected. We’re looking forward to sharing what’s next.

@KristinaMonllos Kristina Monllos is a senior editor for Adweek.