The Curious Case of the Unicorn Frappucino and Its Branding Implications


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.

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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.

Dispelling The “Showrooming” Myth

As a marketer, the concept of “Showrooming” makes me angry, but not for the reasons you imagine. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, let me shed some light on the term.

Wikipedia defines Showrooming as “…when a customer visits a brick and mortar retail location to touch and feeImagel a product and then goes online to buy the product at a lower price.”

This has all the makings of a legitimate problem for retailers. IDC Retail insights estimates that 48 million U.S. shoppers will showroom items this holiday season, up from 20.5 million in 2011.

And there’s no greater posterchild for Showrooming than Best Buy.

MSN Money’s Jason Notte said it best in his article on Best Buy’s point of retail Showrooming inflection. “Showrooming says so much about where we’re at as a retail culture. Consumers haven’t grown so lazy that they’re completely unwilling to go to a store, but they’ve grown so accustomed to online pricing that they’re no longer willing to pay extra for store amenities like leases, lighting, security and a workforce full of not-so-knowledgeable​ folks in uniform. For Best Buy, it’s a conundrum that’s costing the company millions.”

In a year that saw Best Buy close stores and lose a CEO, the assessment seems accurate. The fact of the matter is, no price matching or fancy contextual bank card targeting may save them.  They could just be delaying the same inevitable deaths that plagued CompUSA, Circuit City and others.

But is there a chance that attributing retail death to online shopping is a misnomer? Could Showrooming really be blown out of proportion? According to Forrester Analyst Sucharita Mulpuru, that may just be the case. In a Business Insider article from this summer, Mulpuru said:

“Forrester’s forecast suggests that many consumers may in fact nonetheless choose to purchase products in stores because of the immediate availability of products, service levels associated with buying in stores, or because of the fact that the products online do not have significant benefit over those in stores. As long as pricing is generally comparable across channels, consumers are unlikely to switch to another retailer or channel.”

Hold the phone…consumers like…immediacy of product availability?! You don’t say! So what are big box retailers complaining about? Well let’s get back to Jason Notte’s assessment, namely a lack of real customer service with two personal examples of stellar brick and mortar retail.

A Tale of Two Retailers

Retailer 1: Best Buy

While this is purely anecdotal, it’s a shining example as to how big box retailers don’t get it. I recently needed to purchase a new Bluetooth headset. Armed with my iPhone and the Amazon shopper app, I scanned the few that I was considering and read through the reviews while on the showroom floor. Not once while I was in the aisle was I asked if I needed help by a retail associate, nor was there any real call-to-action to use product reviews while in store. Instead I did my own due diligence and when I found what I was looking for, with a price within $5.00 of what I found on Amazon, I decided to spend the extra money and walk out with my new headset.

As I was checking out, the sales associate thanked me for my patronage (that was nice I thought!), and noticed I was paying with an Amazon credit card. She then surprised and delighted me by mentioning that Best Buy would match the price on Amazon! Score! I thought…and as I fired up my iPhone to tweet in line as to how awesome the retail experience was, she mumbles, “Oh wait, the headset doesn’t qualify for free shipping…sorry, we can’t match!”


Yep there you have it. They had me, and my social media reach, ready to reward them for rewarding me, and it was gone in a poof. I had every intention of cancelling the sale and letting her know I’d buy it on Amazon, but I gave in.

Retailer 2: Apple

I’m a self admitted Apple store hater. I get severely claustrophobic every time I walk into one. Yet the one thing I can never knock them on, is the fact that their store associates are there to greet you and find you help if you need it. The other day was no exception, when I walked in and asked for a VGA dongle for my Macbook Air. The store was, as always, jammed with people. Yet a sales team member walked with me to the obscure corner as to where it was (bottom shelf), grabbed one for me and asked if I needed anything else. When I said no, he whipped out his iPhone and offered to take my credit card right there. Looking at the mass of people at the Genius Bar, I happily nodded. Upon completion of the sale, he asked if I needed a bag (I did), which he conjured up from beneath one of the display tables and then offered to send me my receipt to my email which again I agreed and appreciated. All-in-all I was in and out faster than you could blink, I never did a product comparison and I was pleased with the customer service.


So brick and mortar retail isn’t dead, it just needs to be shaken up. We always talk about how the world can learn from Apple regarding design. Well it can learn a lot more when it comes to product knowledge and understanding of the purchase funnel. Retailers work incredibly hard to get me to their stores, why lose me when I’m ready to convert? By using a blend of people skills (product knowledge, acknowledging your customers) and technology (not waiting for a customer to walk 2000 feet to a check out lane and taking their order while they’re “in the moment”, retailers can mitigate the temptations of losing a sale to online competitors. By using social media through giving their customers something to talk about, they just may keep the sale going longer than a simple transaction.

Enjoying Etsy

With eBay fundamentally changing the way they do business, I’ve decided to explore other online retail options. Etsy has always tickled my fancy – an online equivalent to the Ann Arbor Art Fair.

For those that have never heard of Etsy before, or the Ann Arbor Art Fair, Etsy is an online marketplace of all things hand made.

I’ve bought a few hand printed t-shirts from Etsy (including the one above) and am planning on purchasing something this week for my wife for Valentines Day. I’d encourage all of you to check it out.