The Curious Case of the Unicorn Frappucino and Its Branding Implications

unicornfrappucinologo

There’s been a great disturbance in the Force.

We all know by now that on April 19th, Starbucks introduced their “limited edition” Unicorn Frappucino – a concoction of technicolor waves of blues, pinks, and purples so off-brand, you’d think it was brought to you by Ben & Jerry’s.

Screenshot 2017-04-23 14.55.55.png

The UniFrap has been despised by the likes of Anthony Bourdain, who referred to it as the ‘perfect nexus of awfulness’, to baristas themselves leading to reports of skipping work to online rants that have since gone as viral all in protest of making the tart tie-dyed thirst quencher.

But not so fast my pony potion peddlers! Peeling back the onion (or in this case, the sour mango), what exactly was Starbucks’ Modus Operandi? Many believe they wanted to roll a drink out that would break the social web. Search #unicornfrappuccino on Instagram and you’ll be met with more than 100,000 images – 142,032 to be exact. And those are just the photos that have been hashtagged. If attention was a KPI, they certainly exceeded their objectives.

Or maybe it was a combination of building brand awareness ahead of their earnings reports at the end of April sprinkled with “We will create it because we can” defiance. A shot across the bow at their fiercest competitors, Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s is a great reminder to Wall Street that there’s an entire category of frozen non-coffee concoctions to help expand their customer base and gain further market share. Competitively speaking, McDonald’s has been pivoting its marketing message, according to Julia Hawley of Investopedia, “New commercials and advertisements rolling out in the coming year will fall in line with Dunkin’ Donuts’ approach, pushing McDonald’s as a brand for the common American with emphasis placed on embracing people of every educational and cultural background.”

Demographic ubiquity in the form of a tye-died drink? I can see it. In any scenario, there is one thing I’m left perplexed with, and no I’m not done blogging about it.

What has Starbucks become?

I’ve gone on record countless times regarding my fandom for Scott Bedbury. As the former CMO of Starbucks, and the author of the marketing book “A New Brand World“, Bedbury left a profound impact on my outlook on branding as he detailed the arduous decisions inside Starbucks to open new paths of distribution during a joint venture with Pepsi to create the Frappucino for grocery retail.  The same scrutiny was outlined during a passage in the book related to whether or not Starbucks should serve coffee on United airlines flights.

I tweeted to Scott hoping to pull him into the discussion on the topic of the Unicorn Frappuccino, but to no avail. However a silver lining did manifest in the form of due diligence for this post. By re-reading portions of A New Brand World, and doing a lot of research, I’ve come to the following conclusion:

Starbucks’ brand mantra is “rewarding everyday moments”. This gives them the flexibility of defining themselves beyond coffee by focusing on enhancing the customer’s life. Howard Schultz once said, “Starbucks is the quintessential experience brand and the experience comes to life by our people. The only competitive advantage we have is the relationship we have with our people and the relationship they have built with our customers.”

Nowhere in that statement does he mention coffee, and when asked why not, he replied, “We’re not in the coffee business. It’s what we sell as a product but we’re in the people business—hiring hundreds of employees a week, serving sixty million customers a week, it’s all human connection,” Schultz responded.

So there you have it. The customer experience IS the product. Whether it’s coffee, rainbow colored fraps, or Wi-Fi, these are the mechanisms to enhance the experience. People, HIS people, are the catalysts who steward the experience for their customers. That’s the pink, blue and purpled sticky point that will continue to gnaw at me. His people, baristas from around the country, emotionally reacted to the crazy frap trend. The trends around Unicorn Frappucinos will not go away, even if the Unicorn frap does. There will be others. The question is, will Starbucks consider the very people who help deliver the positive customer experiences they crave the next time a trend like this comes around?

I hope so.

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