Published on: April 26, 2017by Kate McMahon
One moment at a suburban Starbucks epitomized the social media and sugar-fueled Unicorn Frappuccino mania that swirled across the nation last week.
While a pair of tween girls giddily posed for selfies with their multi-colored blended crème drinks, another 12-year-old at the counter looked utterly crestfallen when informed the magic had ended. For her, there would be no mystical, color-changing sweet-turning-sour beverage topped with “whipped cream sprinkled pink and blue fairy powders.” The Darien, Connecticut, Starbucks had just completely sold out of the limited edition Unicorn Frap, a mere two days into its supposed five day run.
The irony was that it was the Content Guy and me who caused the girls’ joy and despair, because we were the ones who snagged the last four ounces of the concoction that launched millions of YouTube views, over 150,000 Instagram photos and fiery commentary on Facebook. Not to mention providing fodder for late night talk show hosts and driving normally unflappable baristas to despair. (“Please don’t get it!” one Denver employee pleaded in a Twitter video rant.)
Amid headlines citing Unicorn Frappuccino “insanity,” celebrity author/chef Anthony Bourdain called the drink “the perfect nexus of awfulness.” Late Night’s Stephen Colbert said Starbucks came up with the name because “Sugary Affront to God was taken.” Pop star Katy Perry took a sip and spit it out in an Instagram story.
Even without the sprinkles (sold out), two sips of this Sweet Tart-on-Steroids smoothie were plenty for me. But in Starbucks franchises from coast to coast, customers were clamoring for the drink and were crushed when it was it was unavailable.
This post on Starbucks’ Facebook page was typical:
“That looks so good. Too bad I'll never know because GEE THE STORES IN MY AREA SOLD OUT IN 2 HOURS!!!! That's right. 2 hours. What is THAT about? So stupid.”
Stupid? Or really savvy? Typically I would say brands that misjudge demand and leave their customers frustrated and venting online are not playing it smart. (I've made this argument about Target in past columns.)
But I think there’s much to be learned from this story. First, Starbucks was wise to hitch on the to rainbow/unicorn mantra dominating Instagram – from rainbow bagels to pizza, sushi and grilled cheese – in the same month as National Unicorn Day (seriously).
Second, Starbucks did a masterful job of leaking news of the drink through its barista network on Reddit before it debuted, and then encouraging customers to post photos once they scored the much-hyped frappuccino. The amount of free advertising it generated on social media was pegged in the tens of millions of dollars.
By limiting the availability to just five days, Starbucks created an immediate demand for a product that was picture perfect for Instagram, swirls and sprinkles and all. The hues were so inviting that people overlooked the shockingly high sugar content (59 grams per grande/16 ounce serving), the calories (410) and the price (approximately $5).
But most importantly, the coffee behemoth scored success with a non-caffeinated drink that appealed to non-traditional customers, such as the aforementioned tween girls. Reports said multiple locations were serving people they had never seen before, including younger kids and teens, all in search of the drink.
If Starbucks can retain those new customers and increase its non-caffeinated frozen beverage business and limited-time offerings going forward, then the unicorn frappuccino did indeed deliver marketing magic. But I don’t think the public would be patient with another “sorry, all sold out” scenario.
As for the stressed-out barista with the “unicorn crap all in my hair and on my nose,” Starbucks said he would he would not be disciplined.
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