Stunt Work: Starbucks and Unicorns

“According to a recent USA Today article, a “stunt food” is “an unusual dish or drink — based on taste, size or ingredients — created for a limited time to grab attention.” Lately, no one seems to have pulled off the stunt as well as Starbucks, with their “Unicorn Frappuccino.” The pink drink plays into the unicorn-anything trend that’s been taking over Instagram, Pinterest, and other social media. Unicorn hair, manicures, cookies, cupcakes, and other images incorporate bright colors, primarily pink, as well as glitter to earn the “unicorn” title.

Marketing professor Anne Belazs was quoted by USA Today: “The launch of extreme or bizarre foods is an effort to capture the zeitgeist of the market,” she said. “Such efforts are very short-lived, result in free publicity, often profitable, and sharply decline in effect. The fad is remembered long after the demand. It is a relatively quick way to breathe life into flat sales.”

This “stunt food” worked particularly well because it was intentionally “Instagramable.” Rather than being simply a novelty (like KFC’s infamous “Double Down”), the Unicorn Frappuccino fit a specific aesthetic, creating not only buzz, but countless free social media promotion for the company. Daniel B. Kline, in his April 26, 2017 Business Insider article, observed that the drink “brought Starbucks a stunning amount of free media coverage and turned customers into a social media army that fueled attention for the limited-time offering, driving traffic to stores so people could buy the color-changing, flavor-changing beverage before it sold out.”

As Kline said, “Call it car-crash public relations, or liken it to a person wearing a bright pink tuxedo at a black-tie affair. In any case, the brightly hued, super-sugary drink was simply too bizarre to ignore.”

What Starbucks Did Well:

Introduced the product at a good time. “Unicorn” is an extremely trendy buzzword. Instagram has never been more important. The news is extremely depressing. People love silly, pretty, relatively inexpensive indulgences when the world seems grim.

Made it pretty. As shallow as it may sound, the real power of this product is the look. By many accounts, it doesn’t even taste particularly great. The point was to play into a trend and encourage customers to take and post pictures.

Didn’t try too hard. Certainly they tried, but they didn’t overdo it. There weren’t cheesy, overplayed commercials irritating anyone trying to watch a YouTube video. They didn’t sell merchandise. Starbucks let customers do the bulk of the promotion – at no cost to the company.

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