Food as Social Currency: the Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino Craze

  Image Credit:  Starbucks News

Image Credit: Starbucks News

Like any competing business, Abbey Research is concerned with monitoring trends, but as a social science research hub, we tend to be interested in what current trends say about how people live, work and consume. Since news of Starbuck’s newest drink concoction hit the market on April 20th, consumer agencies and news outlets are scrambling to cover the colorful sensation. As social science researchers, we would like to ask some critical questions about the use and effectiveness of limited edition consumable items (the Frappuccino was only available through Sunday, April 24th):

·         What are the aims of short-term, flash product launches?

·         What do these campaigns tell us about how people consume – food and information?

·         What can we learn about marketing, consumerism, and the power of trends?

·         How can we apply these lessons to our own projects – be they industrial or academic?

In a timely article from USA Today Business Zlati Meyer argued that the Unicorn Frappuccino is “what people in the business call stunt food: an unusual dish or drink — based on taste, size or ingredients — created for a limited time to grab attention.” Whether these items increase revenue for businesses does not seem to be the goal. Instead, companies (including fast-food giants Pizza Hut, Burger King, and Taco Bell) have all used ‘stunt food’ to tap into consumers’ desire to be trendy.

  Image Credit:  Wordstream

Image Credit: Wordstream

If the aims of these products are to catch the attention of the news and consumers for a short-period of time, then they will hope to gain further brand recognition and hopefully procure a few new customers along the way. What we found most interesting about this flash-pan item, was how it’s notoriety has spread through social media platforms. Searching the #unicornfrappuccino on Twitter reveals pictures of the in-demand drink, articles from People Magazine covering the craze, and even posts from ToysRUs aiming to capitalize on the trend by drawing attention to their unicorn themed products.

One only has to consider the impact of the Black Lives Matter platform on Twitter to understand the potent power of social media to control discourses. As the popularity of these platforms continues to rise, their influence on how we consume items and information grows exponentially. In understanding how many of us now communicate through the photos we post on social media platforms, Starbucks saw the potential to insert their product into this form of communication.

Even as Starbucks baristas express their outrage at the drinks’ difficult and complicated making procedure, the Unicorn Frappuccino as ‘stunt food’ appears to be another successful method for reaching consumers and marketing a new product. In USA Today, Meyer cited Christine Couvelier, a global culinary trend expert who explained that "Whether it’s the Unicorn Frappuccino or whatever's coming in two weeks at a burger place, consumers know more about food now than they ever have before … Food is today's hottest social currency." Starbucks have therefore demonstrated the necessity in knowing how people process information and how we communicate with each other.