The Problem with Chasing Unicorns

I'm gonna go out on a limb and say I don't think that's a real unicorn... Image: MadKruben / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Ah, the unicorn. That magical, mythical creature that will improve the life of those lucky enough to come across one. In the 2000 remake of Gone in 60 Seconds, the unicorn was a 1967 Shelby Mustang GT500 named Eleanor. Unicorn hair is used in the cores of wands in the Harry Potter universe. And for five days in April of 2017, Starbucks introduced its own unicorn to the universe.

At first, as Lou Trope, president of L.J. Trope & Co. explained during his 2018 Nightclub & Bar Show presentation “Don’t Go Chasing Unicorns,” the Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino was a successful promotional beverage. The drink was intriguing due to its appearance, and the limited time for which it was available created demand. Consumer FOMO was engaged and the call to action was clear: get thee to a Starbucks before they’re gone!

This specific unicorn was promoted heavily via social media. Anticipation was built up, and when it finally launched it was an Instagram sensation. For the five days Starbucks customers could get their hands on one, the Unicorn Frappuccino was a sales driver.

And then the unicorn began to look more like a donkey with a traffic cone strapped to its head.

That’s no Unicorn…

A significant number of online and word-of-mouth reviews criticized the taste. Many consumers felt that the company had focused too much (if not completely) on the Instagram-worthiness of this LTO, ignoring the core purpose of a Starbucks beverage: tasting good. The brand’s baristas viewed the drink as their worst nightmare and they turned against the company. Some of the baristas reportedly warned customers in person and via social media to avoid ordering the drink. Negative social media posts flooded the Internet. The Unicorn Frappuccino was a departure from the brand’s core concept—in a bad way—and was therefore a failure of epic proportions. Putting the exclamation mark on this epic fail was a lawsuit over the drink that ultimately led to a settlement.

Starbucks became so focused on chasing a unicorn that they lost the plot. They couldn’t see the mythical forest for the magical trees. Rather than make the same mistake and chase unicorns, you need to create real, successful promotions based on tangible themes and references. And you need to execute your promotions like a professional.

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According to Trope, Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuccino took the brand way too far into the unknown. It’s fine to create a promotion that departs from the expected, but without adhering to several best practices it will be doomed. To understand what Trope means we need to look at his list of promotion goals. Trope believes that a promotion must:

  1. drive sales and boost profitability;
  2. increase brand awareness and create media buzz;
  3. build a brand’s reputation;
  4. launch a new product, service or feature;
  5. showcase a company’s talent;
  6. provide incentives for the brand’s team;
  7. and clarify and encourage the guest buying decision.

It’s said that it takes seven times the effort to acquire a new guest as it does to maintain to an already loyal one. Part of this acquisition requires understanding goal number 7 above, the buying decision. You need to guide your guests from awareness of your product to purchase consideration, ultimately motivating them to make the purchase and repeat the process. Pull this off effectively the first time and it’s easier to get a guest to return to make future purchases. Keep meeting (exceeding, ideally) their expectations and they’ll make more frequent visits and purchases. Boom—you’ve created a loyal guest.

A Lesson Learned

So, what can we learn from Starbucks and their ill-fated Unicorn Frappuccino promotion? For all intents and purposes, after all, the brand did meet the first two goals on Trope’s list above. One could argue that they also met goal number four.

It’s obvious that the now infamous promotion didn’t do Starbucks any favors in the reputation department. And rather than showcase their baristas’ talents or incentivize them to help guide their customers’ buying decisions, Starbucks turned their own teams against them. Doing so resulted in customers being told to not buy the Unicorn Frappuccino, rendering the promotion ineffective.

Trope recommends leveraging trends and events to create successful promotions. For example, Game of Thrones is a pop culture phenomenon, and several bars have taken advantage of its popularity to create themed menus, promotions and pop-up bars. Local, regional, national and global events also lend themselves to successful promotions. During his Nightclub & Bar Show session, Trope pointed to a bar promotion called the Olympic Cocktail Bar that, you guessed it, leveraged the Olympic Games. Considering that we only see Olympic Games every two years and they’re still popular, a crafty operator can build a successful limited-time promotion around them.

Be Interesting

Such promotions work because they adhere to Trope’s cardinal rule of promotions: Be interesting! Create an interesting promotion that’s unexpected, unique and timely and you’ll be on your way to ticking all of Trope’s boxes. Trope cautions, however, to avoid chasing the “daily fad.” Find something with staying power that has captured the support of a significant portion of your guest pool. Chasing fads is a great way to lose dollars and damage your reputation, and for the most part they aren’t interesting.

Identify a trend, pop culture reference, event or something else interesting around which you can build a promotion and go from there. Think about how you can use it to enhance your brand—not hurt it—and then ask yourself what you, your staff and your brand do differently and better than your competitors. You wouldn’t be the first to plan a Stranger Things promotion, but you could execute it in such a way that it’s unique to your brand and staff.

Read this: Using Influencers to Promote Your Nightclub

Ensure that your promotion supports your brand positioning, boosts its reputation and is executed well. Design an effective social media strategy that involves your website (it still matters), Instagram, Twitter and hashtags (tell your guests what hashtags you want them to use), and use these channels to build anticipation. Create buzz and ask yourself, “Is this promotion Instagram-worthy?” Speaking of strategy, leverage your strategic business partnerships: activate your brand reps to decrease costs and increase awareness and perceived value. Contact and align yourself with local editors and influencers, key publications, bloggers and segment producers. If feasible for you, retain and work with a P.R. firm.

Be Accountable

What is success to you? Having a plan to execute a promotion is only half the equation. You need to be able to measure a promotion’s success or failure to determine its performance and viability. Measuring the results also helps you determine if you’re capable of creating successful promotions or need help in that arena.

So again, what is success to you? Have targets in mind. To get you started, refer again to the list of promotion goals toward the top of this article. When you’ve decided on your goal(s), share that with your staff to incentivize them (and consider offering an incentive to top performers) and create excitement for your promotion. After all, your staff members are the faces of your business, the sales people engaging with your guests, and your strongest promoters.

Come up with a budget for every promotion you execute—and stick to it. You need to know what your promotion cost so you can compare that to the gross revenue generated to calculate your net. Money doesn’t need to be the only metric that determines success or failure but it needs to be part of your measurements. If you’ve partnered with a brand on your promotion, find out how they determine success. Another fantastic reason to track metrics: You’ll identify where you can improve your operation for future promotions.

Read this: Ham it Up with this Whiskey Promotion

A final thought on measuring success: Have a reason for your guests to provide their personal information so you can better market to and serve them…and so you can build a valuable database. With the scandals surrounding Facebook and Equifax this can be difficult, so you’ll need to offer them an authentic benefit in exchange for their information.

Bring it All Together

It’s awesome that you’ve conceived a great promotion and created a plan—concept, budget, social media strategy, goal, staff support—but it all boils down to execution. When it’s go time you and your staff need to perform. Otherwise, all you’ve done is spent a lot of time thinking and talking about an idea.

You’ve got your social media channels and website ready to go, but what are you going to say? Think about your brand’s story, then determine what story your promotion is telling. Do those two stories connect? Does the story of your promotion tie into the area in which you operate? Its history? Does it truly tell the story of the theme or reference you’ve chosen? Your promotion needs to hit all those targets so you have a direct, articulate—and concise—story to tell on social media.

Read this: Using Social Effectively to Promote Your Event

As far as preparing your venue for your promotion, Trope says to have your recipes, POS and all necessary equipment on property well before the launch. Train your staff on the recipes and items on offer to your guests. Reinforce the goals, incentives (including making money and gaining regulars), sales dialogue and messaging.

Execute your promotion, acting as your staff’s cheerleader while measuring metrics and tracking sales. Make certain that your entire staff is delivery quality, consistent product and service. Walk your venue to obtain staff and guest feedback so you can make changes quickly where necessary. When the promotion is over share the results with your staff and celebrate victories.