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The Real Magic Behind Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuccino

The company has a limited-time hit, but it may also have found a new audience.

Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX), with the success of its Unicorn Frappuccino, has become one of a handful of companies that have managed to master the art of capturing public attention. 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.

The Unicorn Frappuccino joins products like KFC’s Double Down (the sandwich that used fried chicken as bread), Tacos Bell’s original Doritos Locos Taco, and Pizza Hut’s pizza with a hot-dog-stuffed crust as food spectacles that get people talking.

It’s a formula designed not so much to create good food (though all the items mentioned above have their devoted fans), but to generate attention.

The Unicorn Frappuccino 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.

What does this do for Starbucks?

Obviously the coffee chain got tens of millions of dollars’ worth of free advertising in the form of media coverage and social media shares. But that’s only a small part of the benefit the Unicorn Frappuccino brought to the company.

Perhaps the most important thing the frozen beverage did for Starbucks is let the public know that the company has non-coffee-based offerings. The sheer number of social media pictures with young kids drinking it eventually conveyed that message.

The Unicorn Frappuccino not only brought in lapsed Starbucks customers and increased checks from regulars, but also opened up a new audience for Starbucks. This particular drink is only a limited-time offering, but the chain has creme Frappuccinos (which do not contain coffee) on its regular menu, along with hot chocolates, caffeine-free teas, and other kid-friendly beverages.

The gift that keeps on giving

The various Yum! Brands chains have not only scored with some attention-getting products, but they have also built up expectations. People are waiting to see what they will do next, and that brings both media and social-media attention to their newest stunts.

Starbucks may not be able to top the success — or the sheer absurdity — of the Unicorn Frappuccino, but more people will be looking for new menu items going forward. Starbucks, thanks in part to customer-created “secret menu” items, has a deep bench of unique, non-coffee-based drinks it could cycle onto its menu as a way to build upon the too-young-for-caffeine audience whose attention it now commands.

The American public has shown a willingness to fall for train-wreck marketing. It’s why we watch Dancing with the Stars, and why many of us can’t look away from whatever the Kardashian sisters might be doing. Combine two seemingly mismatched foods or create an over-the-top edible (or drinkable) spectacle, and people will come.

Starbucks has captured the public’s attention with the Unicorn Frappuccino, and it should be able to hold on to it with its next “stunt” drink. That should grow the chain’s audience and give it an easy way to bump sales during slow periods — by simply bringing the fanciful beverage back.

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Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Starbucks. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Drew Limsky

Drew Limsky

Editor-in-Chief

BIOGRAPHY

Drew Limsky joined Lifestyle Media Group in August 2020 as Editor-in-Chief of South Florida Business & Wealth. His first issue of SFBW, October 2020, heralded a reimagined structure, with new content categories and a slew of fresh visual themes. “As sort of a cross between Forbes and Robb Report, with a dash of GQ and Vogue,” Limsky says, “SFBW reflects South Florida’s increasingly sophisticated and dynamic business and cultural landscape.”

Limsky, an avid traveler, swimmer and film buff who holds a law degree and Ph.D. from New York University, likes to say, “I’m a doctor, but I can’t operate—except on your brand.” He wrote his dissertation on the nonfiction work of Joan Didion. Prior to that, Limsky received his B.A. in English, summa cum laude, from Emory University and earned his M.A. in literature at American University in connection with a Masters Scholar Award fellowship.

Limsky came to SFBW at the apex of a storied career in journalism and publishing that includes six previous lead editorial roles, including for some of the world’s best-known brands. He served as global editor-in-chief of Lexus magazine, founding editor-in-chief of custom lifestyle magazines for Cadillac and Holland America Line, and was the founding editor-in-chief of Modern Luxury Interiors South Florida. He also was the executive editor for B2B magazines for Acura and Honda Financial Services, and he served as travel editor for Conde Nast. Magazines under Limsky’s editorship have garnered more than 75 industry awards.

He has also written for many of the country’s top newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Boston Globe, USA Today, Worth, Robb Report, Afar, Time Out New York, National Geographic Traveler, Men’s Journal, Ritz-Carlton, Elite Traveler, Florida Design, Metropolis and Architectural Digest Mexico. His other clients have included Four Seasons, Acqualina Resort & Residences, Yahoo!, American Airlines, Wynn, Douglas Elliman and Corcoran. As an adjunct assistant professor, Limsky has taught journalism, film and creative writing at the City University of New York, Pace University, American University and other colleges.