The Case of the Unicorn Frappuccino: How Starbucks Leaves Marketing to Its Customers

Curator Intern Blog Series

By Lauren Macalalad, PR Intern

I am an avid coffee drinker, born and raised in Seattle, making me no stranger to Starbucks and its continuously growing list of unique and delicious, caffeinated beverages. Just last week, the company debuted a new specialty drink, the Unicorn Frappuccino, which has now become notorious for its seemingly magical appearance and disappointing flavor. Regardless of its flavor, Starbucks tasted success in detecting an emerging social media trend and strategically merging it with their brand.

In a news release posted to the Starbucks website, the company mentioned that it aimed to take the social media unicorn craze to the next level, hence the creation of the quirky new beverage that clearly embodied the trend. Reflecting on the success of the specialty drink in an interview with CNBC, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson emphasized that the Unicorn Frappuccino received a “phenomenal organic, social response.” Not only did the new Frappuccino create buzz for the household coffee company, but it also helped to generate excitement for Starbucks’ much-anticipated, seasonal Frappuccino happy hour promotion.

I first saw a post of the Unicorn Frappuccino on my Instagram feed on April 19, the day it was released. Starbucks’ strategic maneuver to attract social media users with their trendy drink’s aesthetic – perfect for visual platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat – makes marketing a little easier, especially with social media features such as hashtags, which can be deliberately used to optimize searches and content accessibility.

Curious about Starbucks’ images on Instagram, I decided to do a quick search. I found that as of April 26 at 3 p.m., 27.5 million Instagram posts contained the hashtag #Starbucks and 155,000 posts used the hashtag #unicornfrappuccino. That number does not count posts with similar hashtags such as #unicornfrap, #unicornfrappe, or others derived from the drink’s name or those that were misspelled. The Unicorn Frappuccino’s noteworthy presence on Instagram garnered robust attention for Starbucks, as well as allowed the company to take the reins of the magical craze and launch the unicorn trend within the food and beverage industry.

Looking at Starbucks and its Unicorn Frappuccino as a prime example, other companies can increase brand awareness and brand success through strategic planning around social media trends. One of the greatest things social media affords companies is increased and supplementary marketing generated by its customers. By utilizing social media as a medium for user-produced publicity, Starbucks and other brands are changing the way marketing can be transferred from the company itself to the customers it serves. Starbucks’ latest endeavor proved there’s great return from leveraging current social media trends to gain free marketing from customers, further acknowledging the importance of maintaining an online presence and staying relevant on social channels.

This blog was written as a part of Curator’s Intern Blog Series. The author, Lauren Macalalad, is a senior at the University of Washington studying communication, Spanish and diversity. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.