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Can Starbucks' unicorn Frappuccino deliver more than buzz?

Starbucks' major growth
Starbucks unveils plan to add 12,000 stores 00:37

Starbucks’ new unicorn Frappuccino is delivering plenty of social-media buzz, thanks to bright pink and blue colors that look like something from a carnival poster. 

The colorful drink needs to do more than get people posting photos to Instagram, however. Limited-time drinks are increasingly a staple at Starbucks (SBUX), which is rolling out new drinks and short-term offerings as a way to entice consumers into its stores. One of its earliest big hits was the autumnal pumpkin spice latte, which has been copied by other coffee outlets and food brands. 

The unicorn Frappuccino, which will be available from April 19-23, is the company’s first new Frappuccino flavor this year, and was inspired by unicorn-themed food and drinks popular on social media, the company said. The new drink comes at a sensitive time for Starbucks, with a new chief executive at the helm and a sales slowdown in 2016 that came amidst an unpopular change in its loyal program. The coffee giant is also dealing with competition from smaller stores that appeal to younger consumers.

“As a heritage brand, that is competing with smaller, artisanal, and more specialized beverage experiences, Starbucks is making a play at attracting generation Z and creating something that they will want to share,” said Emily Kahn, a consultant at branding company Vivaldi. “The short time frame creates urgency and generates buzz, making it a great opportunity to profit off of marketing.”

The drink’s colors and name are designed to appeal to generation Z, or consumers born after 1995, she added. Gen Z, a group that grew up with social media, is poised to surpass the millennial generation in size, and may be more influential than their slightly older peers. 

“The bright colors and flavor-ambiguous name will of course drive sales because experience hungry gen-Z-ers will want to be in the know,” Kahn added. 

That’s not to say that millennials, generation X, baby boomers and the silent generation won’t want to buy a unicorn Frappuccino, however. The average Starbucks customer is an educated 42-year-old professional with household income of $90,000.  

Getting those customers to return to its stores is key to boosting its bottom line. Its new CEO, Kevin Johnson, told The Wall Street Journal earlier this year that innovation is key to its long-term growth. 

Starbucks’ stock price could also use some unicorn magic. The shares have declined more than 3 percent over the past year, compared with a 12.6 percent jump in the S&P 500 index. 

“When they have these initiatives, it wakes up people, who say, ‘I don’t think I’ve been to a Starbucks, let me check them out’,” said Luigi Ferguson, assistant vice president of search at marketing company Ansira. “It gives you a reason to stop in. Even if you are an existing customer, it’s something you might be interested in trying, and it gives you something to talk about.”

The bigger question for curious consumers is probably how the drink tastes. Starbucks bills the Frappuccino as containing flavors that “evolve from sweet and fruity to tangy and tart.” The drink is made with mango syrup and a “pleasantly sour” blue drizzle. 

Will the drink prove to be mythical in popularity? So far, the early reviews appear mixed, with consumers describing the unicorn frappuccino’s taste as everything from “sour Skittles” to “magical.” 

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