Instagram bait: Why Starbucks put a unicorn meme on its menu
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Instagram bait: Why Starbucks put a unicorn meme on its menu


To anyone who hasn’t spent time on certain corners of Instagram, Starbucks’ latest creation and the viral hype surrounding it might be a bit confusing. 

The neon “Unicorn Frappuccino” clashes hard with the coffee chain’s affected faux-Italian branding. It’s not the sort of drink that one imagines ordering with words like “Venti” or sipping amidst light jazz.

By most accounts, the blue-and-pink concoction, which transitions from sweet to sour, doesn’t even taste especially good.

None of that really matters to Starbucks, though. The limited-time item isn’t meant to blend with the company’s coffeehouse chic but rather its customers’ social media feeds.

It’s more of a meme than a drink, capitalizing on an online craze for all things unicorn-related — and, specifically, a trend in which Instagram users share rainbow-dyed “unicorn food.”

“The look of the beverage was an important part of its creation,” a Starbucks spokesperson said of its conception in an email. “Our inspiration came from the fun, spirited and colorful unicorn-themed food and drinks that have been trending on social media.”

"Unicorn hot chocolate." So-called "unicorn food"  has become a big trend on Instagram.

“Unicorn hot chocolate.” So-called “unicorn food”  has become a big trend on Instagram.

Image: instagram

The week-long promotion is the latest in a long line of outlandish menu items from food and beverage chains that seem to be geared more toward online sharing than actual consumption.

The impulse of customers to broadcast photos of meals on Instagram or other social media has broadly changed the way restaurant and fast food chains think about their visual presentation. 

It’s also pushed them to roll out increasingly outrageous offerings just for the sake of online reactions — a type of product known to people in the industry as “stunt food.” 

“It’s affecting not just the menu and the plating and the packaging but what items they’re actually creating,” says restaurant industry consultant Aaron Allen.

“It’s increasingly becoming part of the vernacular…of the marketing departments at major chain restaurants.” 

Take Taco Bell’s endless parade of decadent Franken-foods like the Dorito Locos tacos and Cap’n Crunch donut holes. Or Buffalo Wild Wings’ Mountain Dew-flavored chicken sauce. Jack in the Box once stirred up a bacon milkshake.

These foods might taste fine, and some even sell well and outlive their temporary run, but their real value is usually in the free advertising they bring the chains through viral buzz. 

That goes doubly so if a brand is able to tap into an existing under-the-radar internet fad like Starbucks did.

“It’s along the lines of the notion of a secret menu. People like being ‘in’ on it — this sort of insider view makes people want to share it so much more,” Allen said.

Many big chains like McDonald’s and Taco Bell understand that appeal, according to Allen. They sometimes dedicate employees or entire teams to monitoring and analyzing each individual social platform, he says.

From there, menu items can sometimes take months or even years to develop.

“[The products] are designed to not look like there’s that much thought and energy and effort that’s going into it because the nature of these platforms is about looking like you’ve got less of a corporate, conglomerate, kind of big machine that’s doing it,” Allen said. “But a lot goes on behind the scenes.”

Stunt food itself is nothing new. Restaurants have always tried to lure customers with zany novelties that get people talking.

But the internet has more recently pushed it to new heights. The genesis of the trend’s modern incarnation is widely seen as KFC’s infamous “Double Down” of 2009 — a sandwich consisting of two fried chicken patties separated by layers of bacon and cheese.  

A disgusted New York Times writer called the unholy combination a “new low” in stunt food marketing, a pronouncement that now seems trite after years of greasy bacon- and snack chip-piled monstrosities.

KFC's infamous Double Down.

KFC’s infamous Double Down.

Image: KFC

The viral power of such items has since led some dining chains to attack junk food with the eye of a mad scientist, constantly pushing creations into wackier territory.

As a result, devising attention-grabbing new concoctions is now a constant struggle in an atmosphere where bizarre mash-ups and hedonistic extravagance are the norm.

Chains put a lot of stake in being the first to hit a new concept.

“We certainly are always doing social listening to see what kinds of trends and other things people are talking about and what seems to be up-and-coming,” said Brad Haley, chief marketing officer of Carl’s Jr. parent CKE Restaurants. “We have always prided ourselves on being the fast food chain that brings ideas to fast food for the first time.” 

Long before the Double Down, as a fascination with all things bacon was beginning to take root online and Supersize Me-related scares had fast food companies reining in the calories, Carl’s Jr. made waves with its unabashedly fatty “pastrami burger” in 2006. 

“We pioneered what Jay Leno jokingly referred to as ‘meat as a condiment,'” Haley said.

A more accurate description might be “meat as a spectacle.” Leno’s punchline was meant as a diss, but Carl’s Jr. happily touted the quote on its marketing materials in the years after as it honed its buzzy meat-overload formula to the tune of growing sales. Rivals like Arby’s and Wendy’s have since replicated it as well.

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Haley insists that each of the brand’s burgers — even those piled high with potato chips and hot dogs — are always made with good taste in mind; viral reach is secondary.

But there’s no question social media shares play a role in the creative process. As part of a recent brand overhaul, Carl’s Jr.’s ad agency took pains to ensure the paper that lined its trays provided a photogenic backdrop for customer meals, Haley said.

Not everyone agrees on the actual market power of stunt food. Social media impressions are tough to gauge in terms of real cash returns, and buzzy items take a lot of work for what’s usually a fleeting limited run.

Still, as the value of traditional advertising becomes more uncertain, cheap buzz is all the more valuable. 

Starbucks, for its part, seems to be basking in its success.

“We’ve been thrilled with our customers’ enthusiastic reaction and advocacy for the Unicorn Frappuccino,” a spokesperson said. “Its fandom has exceeded everyone’s expectations.”

Don’t expect brands to stop their weirder food experiments anytime soon.

WATCH: Woman uses Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino to spread some magical news to her husband

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April 23, 2017
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