Starbucks' Unicorn Frappuccino was a force to be reckoned with. The drink was formally introduced at all Starbucks shops in the United States, Canada and Mexico for the timeframe of April 19 - 23, 2017. Starbucks describes the drink as a “sweet dusting of pink powder, blended into a crème Frappuccino with mango syrup and layered with a pleasantly sour blue drizzle. It is finished with vanilla whipped cream and a sprinkle of sweet pink and sour blue powder topping.” The drink also changed color when you swirled it around, creating a magical experience for the consumer. Moreover, the drink had bright colors that was sure to pop in photos. The idea behind the drink was to capitalize on the “unicorn-themed food and drinks trending on social media” and to send Facebook, Twitter and Instagram users into a frenzy over it. Conveniently, National Unicorn Day was April 9th, causing #NationalUnicornDay to be trending when Starbucks launched the drink. Before Starbucks even announced the launch, photos of blue and pink powder were being leaked by Starbucks workers around April 14th, thus, creating a lot of speculation and buzz. The launch of the secret menu drink was a peculiar one, using social media and mass media tactics to create excitement and conversation around the new product which fostered an overall successful campaign.
The popular web content rating and discussion website, Reddit, was the initial site where photos were leaked of the Unicorn Frappuccino. Exhibit 1 shows the initial photo posted by a Starbucks worker with the caption, “Does anyone know what this is for.” The photo then catapulted into a widespread social media discussion between Starbucks fans. These fans were the ones to keep spreading speculation via Instagram, Twitter and Facebook forums. Employees also took part in the discussion by posting comments and photos of the Unicorn drink (see Exhibit 2). Starbucks was then forced to contribute to the discussion and reportedly said, "We're still working our Frappuccino magic and don't have any details to share at this time."
With Starbucks fans being great in number and very loyal to the franchise, word about the new drink spread like wildfire. Even without the formal announcement of the drink, many were already anticipating the drop of the Unicorn Frappuccino due to the leaks on Reddit. According to public relations specialist, Hannah DeSantis, the leak of the photos from Starbucks workers “created suspense for consumers, and included them in the concept prior to product launch.” This created questions and excitement: fans asking “what does it taste like?” and “when and where can I buy it.” Starbucks, thus, utilizes the uncertainty reduction theory - knowingly creating uncertainty and unease in order to boost conversation. According to DeSantis, “consumers became the marketing wing for Starbucks... 2017 is the year of influencers and Starbucks gave power to the consumers by leaking photos on Reddit which then allowed their fans to share the news first.” In her opinion, the fans of Starbucks made all the difference for the Unicorn Frappuccino campaign.
Now let's examine the communication strategy. Starbucks employed the elaboration likelihood model to persuade people to feel excited about their product - specifically, they employed peripheral messages. First, they used liking - Starbucks fans like Starbucks, therefore, they will like the Unicorn Frappuccino. Second, they used scarcity by only having the drink available for a limited time. And lastly, they used social proof by posting numerous photos of the drink on social media, giving people the impression “everyone's buying/talking about it, therefore, I should too.”
The success of the drink is also partly due to innovation. Starbucks was able to employ four out of the five factors used to judge innovation of a product: relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, and observability. The one missing factor in this case would be trialability, which we will examine more closely to see why it did not pose an issue for Starbucks. Starbucks' relative advantage comes from the brand itself - it is higher-profile than other drink companies, has a loyal following, and has big market presence. The drink offers compatibility with their audience by capitalizing on the popular Unicorn trend as well as tapping into the visual appeal of the drink. The audience that Starbucks was attempting to attract valued the way the drink looked and the concept behind it. Additionally, the way Starbucks' communication was deployed through social media showed they understood their audience engaged in social media platforms. The complexity component comes into play because the drink was so complex in it's creation - so much so even Starbucks employees were having a hard time making it. The changing-color component added an additional dimension of complexity. Lastly, observability was employed in this innovation. Pictures of it surfacing the internet raised awareness and made the public want to try it for themselves. The one dimension that was lacking was trialability - people were unable to try the drink before purchasing. This component didn't prove to be an issue because Starbucks fans are loyal and have confidence in Starbucks products. The product is also low in cost, therefore, not much is lost by purchasing it. Overall, innovation played a key role in the success of the Unicorn Frappuccino.
The Starbucks employees served as the gatekeepers to the conversation - they controlled the conversation with the information leaks they posted to social media. Without them there would have been no communication in the first place. Since the message was dispersed via social media and public forums such as Reddit, anyone could find it - bridges, liaisons, and stars (although present) weren't necessary for the spread of conversation. Once the drink actually launched, critical mass theory came into play. Enough food-bloggers and everyday people alike were talking about the drink, that ultimately mainstream media and news sources, i.e. The Huffington Post, Elite Daily, etc., also started reporting on it. Once the gates to the conversation were opened, the coverage came flooding in. Using normative beliefs, one could have predicted that everyone in the social network would react positively to the drink because that was what was expected of them.
Although the Unicorn Frappuccino was successful on many fronts, some areas were lacking. According to the media richness theory, Starbucks' communication was not as “rich” as it could have been. Interactive websites are less interactive than face-to-face communication. What interactive websites lack are outside cues, i.e. facial expressions, pauses, gestures, eye contact, etc. therefore neglecting the areas that are used to fully convey a message. This shortcoming has the potential to result in ambiguity - the possibility of multiple interpretations of a message. Second, since the messages were posted on a general website, they weren't tailored to a specific audience. When interacting one-on-one, people are able to alter their message/strategy to the receiver to ensure the message is well-perceived. Finally, the speed of feedback - although quick - was not as quick as face-to-face communication. One way they could have made this media more rich through social media would be by going “live” on Instagram or Facebook, therefore, they would have been able to receive immediate feedback and reduce the potential for ambiguity.
Although the drink itself was controversial for many reasons among baristas, customers, and competitors alike, one thing cannot be denied: the communication strategy employed for its launch was effective. The technique of having the Starbucks fan community anticipate the launch of the drink was ingenious. As stated in the uncertainty reduction theory, people hate the uncertain. Starbucks fans proved this theory true when they tried to bridge the gap of uncertainty by engaging with one another and discussing the topic. Through a mix of deep understanding of their target audience and understanding human nature, Starbucks was able to pull off a very successful launch for the Unicorn Frappuccino.
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