Photo Credit: Starbucks
There’s a good chance that, even if you never tried it yourself, you’ve heard of the Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino. For the past two weeks, it has been all over social media. The pink-and-purple concoction kept popping up all over Instagram. It appeared on early morning TV talk shows as guests and anchors tried to explain the allure of this very non-Starbucks drink. And, of course, there were the Unicorn Frappuccino freakout videos and tweets posted by Starbucks baristas.
A drink you either love or hate
In short, Starbucks showed that it was possible to create a social media phenomenon using a technique few might dare to embrace – create a monstrosity so outrageous that it would be guaranteed to polarize people. Either you hated the pink Unicorn Frappuccino or you loved it. There was no middle ground.
For example, food critic and media superstar Anthony Bourdain called the Unicorn Frappuccino “the perfect nexus of awfulness.” Stephen Colbert called it “a sugary affront to God.” The New Yorker even posted a cartoon about the drink, showing a unicorn in a bar ordering a Scotch and pouting about all the sparkles and sprinkles that people now associate with unicorns. And one media observer likened it to wearing a pink tuxedo to a black tie affair.
Purple cows and pink unicorns
However, this wasn’t a case of Starbucks somehow messing up terribly with some truly atrocious marketing – this reaction was planned from the outset. Think of the difference between Uber and Lyft. There’s a reason why Lyft vehicles are known for their furry pink moustaches – it helps them stand out in a crowd of black Uber cars.
About 15 years ago, marketing guru Seth Godin wrote about Purple Cow marketing strategies to make companies remarkable. Well, the Purple Cow just had a love child with the Pink Unicorn, and it was delivered to Starbucks cafes across the nation this April.
The art of the viral food item
In many ways, the Unicorn Frappuccino is no different from any of the other social media phenomena that other fast food purveyors have created over the past few years. In each case, the purpose is to make a splash and generate some media buzz – and it’s all free, unpaid media. Just consider the examples of the Doritos Locos Taco (a taco held together with Doritos), the Pizza Hut Hot Dog Bites pizza (a pizza crust stuffed with hot dogs), or the KFC Double Down (which uses fried chicken instead of bread to hold a bacon-cheese sandwich together!). Arguably, these are creations that are meant to generate buzz and play to the base, and less about true food industry R&D.
The Unicorn Frappuccino worked as a social media phenomenon largely because it broke all the rules. It was purposely off-brand. It was easy to mock. And it alarmed serious food critics, who called the super sugary drink a “candy-colored calorie bomb.” That just made it all the more tempting to try.
A photo is worth a thousand likes
But guess what? The swirling pink and purple Unicorn Frappuccino was tailor-made for Instagram. In the same way that people can’t resist from posting photos of their morning cup of joe on Instagram, they also couldn’t resist posting photos of this latest Starbucks creation. Just check out the hashtag #UnicornFrappuccino on Instagram – there are now over 150,000 photos of kids getting pink unicorn haircuts, happy couples enjoying a unicorn together, little kids slurping on the Unicorn Frappuccino and, of course, plenty of “sold out” signs at Starbucks locations.
The good news – for many people – is that the Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino is now gone after a special promotional period. But don’t worry, some social media sites are already buzzing with the next social media phenomenon headed our way: the Dragon Frappuccino.