April 24, 2017 5:11 pm
Updated: April 24, 2017 5:48 pm

Say what you want about the Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino — it was marketing genius

A Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino drink sits on display, Thursday, April 20, 2017, in Philadelphia.

Matt Rourke/AP
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As social media branding campaigns go, Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuccino blitz will go down as a textbook case of how to do it right.

“It was a very smart marketing tactic,” said Kate Engineer, director of communications at Toronto-based Fervid Communications, a marketing and social media company that specializes in the hospitality industry.

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READ MORE: ‘Frap from hell’: Starbucks baristas vent about labour-intensive Unicorn Frappuccino

The Unicorn Frappuccino, in case you’ve been absent from this planet and missed it somehow, is Starbucks’ sparkly frozen beverage and it has become a social media sensation.

The colour-changing drink, made up of “pink powder, blended into a crème Frappuccino with mango syrup and layered with a pleasantly sour blue drizzle,” as the coffee-maker described it, was only available from April 19 through April 23.

But its fleeting appearance has made a mark. From Instagram through Twitter to Reddit, the social media universe couldn’t seem to get enough of the sugar-laden drink and its pastel colours.

Editor’s note: a previous version of the following paragraph referred to Twitter hashtags. Kate Engineer was referring to Instagram hashtags:

“I counted about 150,000 [Instagram] hashtags about it,” said Engineer.

READ MORE: Starbucks drive-thru locations now equipped with 2-way video screens

Not all of the attention was positive.

Starbucks baristas made headlines after taking to Reddit and Twitter to complain about having to fill endless orders of the complex drink.

And media coverage also zeroed in on the Unicorn Frappuccino’s high sugar content — a whopping 59 grams for a 16 oz drink.

“But all press is good press, as long as it’s not horrible,” said Maureen Atkinson, senior partner at J.C. Williams Group, a global retail adviser.

READ MORE: Starbucks plans to nearly double its locations over 5 years

Horrible, Atkinson explained, means something like the public relations disaster that recently engulfed United Airlines, after one of its passengers was forcibly dragged off of an overbooked flight and the scene caught on camera.

READ MORE: American Airlines taking lessons from United’s public relations fiasco

Overworked baristas and a few complaints about too much sugar do not overshadow the fact that, for a few days, everyone was talking about Starbucks, said Atkinson.

Besides, the Unicorn Frappuccino wasn’t about the eating experience, said Engineer.

Sparkles, whip cream and blue and pink swirls are meant to tap into the social media trend that celebrates “over-indulgent food images,” she noted.

In other words, ordering a Unicorn Frap is about taking a picture of it and sharing it. Inhaling the calories is optional.

The marketing genius of Starbucks was also to make the drink available for only a short time, which created a “sense of urgency” among customers, Engineer told Global News.

READ MORE: Starbucks adding calorie counts to its menu across Canada

And it isn’t by chance that the Unicorn Frap, unlike most of Starbucks drinks, did not contain a drop of coffee.

“I’m sure that the idea there was to make it appealing to a younger demographic,” said Engineer.

Starbucks won’t say whether it will repeat the experiment any time soon. A company spokesperson contacted by Global News noted that the coffee maker has a number of seasonal drinks that make only a temporary appearance on the menu.

“At Halloween, Starbucks had Frappula Frappuccino on the menu for a few days, and last April, there was the Birthday Cake Frappuccino for the anniversary of that drink,” Madeleine Löwenborg-Frick at Starbucks Coffee Canada wrote in an email.

No word, either, on whether the Unicorn Frappuccino will become part of the regular menu.

If you missed it, though, don’t worry. Just flip through Instagram and you’ll get most of the experience.

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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