The business of ‘unicorn food’

Photo via Starbucks

You may have seen it—brightly-colored, highly-shareable food and drinks cropping up in real life, or perhaps more likely, on social media. The “unicorn food” trend has taken hold, most recently with the fleeting “Unicorn Frappuccino” at Starbucks, and it can be found in everything from toast and noodles to soup and bagels.

How much is social media to credit—or to blame, depending on your taste—for this latest food trend? And how can brands capitalize on the Instagram-grown hunger for “unicorn food” without making it suddenly uncool?

The latter is a “delicate balance,” says Yakov Bart, assistant professor of marketing in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business. As for the former? In addition to what’s most likely food dye, these “unicorn” creations have “the necessary content-related ingredients to become viral.”

As “unicorn food” reaches a fever pitch—most recently with Starbucks’ “Unicorn Frappuccino”—what role do you think social media has had in creating and sustaining this trend?

Consumer-to-consumer communications via social media certainly contributed a lot to this trend. The nature of the “unicorn” theme makes it attractive on the content creation side, as it is relatively easy for people to create their own theme-related content to express themselves and share it with others. That is, making and sharing these creations is relatively easy, and people have the opportunity to express themselves and show off their creativity in the final product. On the content consumption side, it stands out visually—the bright colors are hard to miss among all other friends’ updates on Instagram, Snapchat, and other social networks. In other words, it has the necessary content-related ingredients to become viral.

Trending topics on social media change at a lightning pace. How have companies changed in order to take advantage of those quick-moving trends—and does it pay off?

Lots of brands have made substantial investments in social media listening, and many have moved into translating collected insights into various strategic marketing decisions, including the new product development processes. One of the key trade-offs any brand is facing when making a decision to act (or not) based on observed consumer conversations relates to timing. On one hand, any company wants to be the first one to offer a new product designed from perceived trends emerging from social media. On the other hand, it is hard to distinguish between quickly-passing fads and longer-term trends—the more time the brand spends waiting and observing the patterns in unfolding social media chatter, the better it’ll be able to predict which is which. Finding a delicate balance between these two is an important and difficult problem, which big brands typically attempt to address by investing in collecting insights from more social media sources and improving their analytics toolkits.

The “unicorn food” trend was started on Instagram by a health and wellness blogger, spread to other individual users and small boutique cafés, and then made its way to bigger national brands like Starbucks. Do you think consumers view large corporations as more or less appealing when they participate in these trends? In other words, is it cool for big brands to offer “unicorn food,” or is it more equivalent to your aunt joining Facebook?

When brands create their own content (or new products), it is important to ensure that it is relevant for both consumers and brand identity. While there’s always the temptation to be relevant to every single aspect of targeted consumers’ wants and needs, a company must be clear on how well such catering would be consistent with what the brand stands for. Otherwise, customers would not perceive the offering as authentic and may even respond negatively if they feel that a company “tries too hard.”