- Starbucks deployed a limited-run Unicorn Frappuccino last week, successfully stoking a social media craze for the sweet and sour, pink and blue concoction on Facebook, Twitter and especially Instagram, according to a report by Mashable.
- The quest for social media buzz is increasingly impacting the way coffee and restaurant chains create and present new menu items. Starbuck's bright, limited-edition Unicorn Frappuccino was designed for maximum Instagram impact above all else.
- The latest iteration of so-called "stunt food" hasn't been universally adored, as Business Insider noted. Starbucks' employees complained the Unicorn Frappuccino is complicated to blend, stains their hands, makes a mess and ruled their work flows for its five-day run. The barista backlash has been documented on social media in posts tagged #baristaproblems, recounting behind-the-scenes Unicorn Frappuccino horror stories.
In the era of shareable social content, taste can be a less valuable quality than the visual power and cool factor of food and beverages. The Unicorn Frappuccino might be the most extreme example of a product specifically tailored more toward photo filters than taste buds — its flavor is reportedly divisive at best — but Starbucks can add another success story to its long history of inducing mania for menu items.
Starbucks is hardly alone in eyeing social as a massive hype engine and experimental food space: Taco Bell, Jack in the Box, Doritos, Pizza Hut, Burger King and KFC have all served up their own "Unicorns" to swing the consumer spotlight onto their brands.
The novelty of stunt foods isn't unique to today — paging the McRib — but the way it's become enmeshed in the crafting of menu items is novel. Restaurant industry consultant Aaron Allen told Mashable companies such as McDonald's dedicate employees to monitor social media platforms for menu ideas. Similarly, Taco Bell has roped in its culinary team to keep tabs on Instagram trends that inform the development of its offerings. Mashable notes that even Carl’s Jr. tried to make the paper lining on its trays photo-worthy.
Despite mounting efforts to make sustenance fodder for social media, business impact is debatable. Talking to USA Today about the Unicorn Frappuccino, Morningstar restaurant analyst R.J. Hottovy said the campaign was a viable buzz-builder, but probably won't have any outsized impact on quarterly sales.
"You won’t see it move the needle,” he told the publication, though other analysts disagreed, suggesting Starbucks might try a similar effort not too far down the road.