KANSAS CITY — Starbucks won’t say how many Unicorn Frappuccino beverages it sold during the drink’s five-day run, but a spokesperson for the chain confirmed the colorful concoction “exceeded everyone’s expectations.”
The Unicorn Frappuccino, available from April 19 through April 23 in participating stores, features blended crème with mango syrup, layered with a sour blue drizzle and topped with vanilla whipped cream and a sprinkle of pink and blue powder. As consumers sip and stir, the Frappuccino transforms from sweet, fruity and purple with swirls of blue to a pink drink that’s tangy and tart, Starbucks said.
Many locations ran out of supplies early, and the beverage reportedly generated more than 180,000 hits on Instagram in a week. The Unicorn Frappuccino, which contains no coffee, created plenty of buzz on Twitter and Facebook, too.
The sensational drink was inspired by a trend of unicorn-themed food and beverages posted on social media. From bagels to layer cakes to lattes, such items feature swirls of pastel or rainbow hues and may include sprinkles, marshmallows or colorful candies. Recipes shared on Pinterest range from tie-dyed grilled cheese sandwiches to vibrantly tinted cheesecake.
"We see the unicorn trend as an evolution of the trend of all things rainbow," Pinterest told Food Business News. "You can trace roots back to something as simple as Funfetti cake, which had its own renaissance in recent years and started people on this rainbow kick. On Pinterest, we've seen the evolution of these trends over the years, as rainbow food had its moment and made way for this new rush of unicorn food."
The web site, which allows users to “pin” images and other content to a virtual pinboard, said unicorn food searches are up 394% since January.
The trend reportedly began when a food blogger started experimenting with natural dyes to punch up her photos.
“I posted it, and all my followers started saying it looked like a unicorn, so I said you’re right, and I started calling it that, too,” Adeline Waugh told The New York Times. “Then all of a sudden all these people were making it and tagging it, and now the unicorn thing has gotten just insane.”
Starbucks’ take on the trend serves as a testament to social media’s influence on food industry innovation. Taco Bell’s culinary team monitors its most-shared menu items on Instagram, and the chefs and food scientists there purposefully develop products to look appealing on social media, according to Business Insider.
Whether the Unicorn Frappuccino will make a return remains to be seen.
“At this time we do not have details on future availability of the beverage,” the Starbucks spokesperson said.
Days after the promotion ended, Starbucks founder and executive chairman Howard D. Schultz called the Unicorn Frappuccino “the most stunning example of our understanding of digital and social media and Instagram” during an April 27 earnings call and said the drink drove significant traffic, incrementality, awareness and brand affinity.
Kris Engskov, executive vice-president and president, U.S. Retail, added, “We’ve got this early spark with Unicorn out there that has reignited interest in the product, in the platform. We’re going to bring at least one entirely new drink… this year that is going to be as good as Unicorn or better."
Despite all the hype, however, the beverage received mixed reviews on-line (a Washington Post reporter said the drink tasted “like sour birthday cake and shame”) and drew the ire of Starbucks employees, who took to social media to complain about making the complicated drink. One barista ranted in a YouTube video: “I have never made so many Frappuccinos in my entire life. My hands are completely sticky. I have unicorn crap all in my hair and on my nose. I have never been so stressed out in my entire life.”
Still, the limited offer is expected to help drive same-store sales growth at the coffee chain, said UBS analyst Dennis Geiger, who reaffirmed his “outperform” rating on Starbucks’ stock and $70 price target in a note to investors on April 24. The outlook, he wrote, is “all rainbows and unicorns.”