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Looks do matter! Chains create foods that photograph well on social media

Starbucks' Unicorn Frappuccino, here and gone in five days. Photo by: Starbucks
Starbucks' Unicorn Frappuccino, here and gone in five days. Photo by: Starbucks

If you’ve been online lately, you’ve seen a Unicorn Frappuccino in its natural habitat: Instagram.

The drink dominated social media, appearing more than 1.3 billion times on Twitter, according to research company Brandwatch. On Instagram, more than 150,000 posts were tagged #unicornfrappuccino. Countless more photos and videos made their way onto Snapchat and Facebook.

And then, as quickly as it had appeared, the Unicorn Frappuccino was gone. Starbucks offered it for only five days, so if you missed it, you really missed it.

The limited-time-only pink-and-blue sugary swirled monster drink seemed like it was designed with Instagram in mind, and it almost certainly was.

Giving Customers What They Want

Chains like Starbucks have always created menu items based on customer behavior. Among the key 18-to-34 demographic, the current consumer behavior is to take a photo and post it online. So when new foods are being developed, companies are making sure the food is fit for a filtered selfie.

“Food is today’s hottest social currency,” said Christine Couvelier. She is an executive chef and president of Culinary Concierge, a company that tracks food trends and developments. Couvelier said one-third of people in the millennial age bracket regularly post photos of their food online, so it makes sense that companies would want to take advantage of that by designing Instagram-able offerings.

Some foods are naturally appealing, including colorful cocktails, frosted desserts and artisanal lattes crowned with delicate foam art. Fast food is traditionally less photogenic, but chains are trying to change that.

Photogenic Food

In 2015, Brinker International, parent of the Chili’s chain, announced that it would spend $750,000 a year to improve how its food looked in photos. An egg wash would be applied to the hamburger buns to give them an eye-catching sheen. The french fries would be served in stainless-steel baskets, and the ribs would be separated and stacked instead of being served as a single slab.

When the plan was launched, Chili’s had 25,000 followers on Instagram, according to news reports, but now it has just shy of 200,000.

Yum Brands owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC — the homes of the Doritos Locos Taco, the Hot Dog Bites Pizza and the Double Down sandwich, which substitutes pieces of chicken for bread. Liz Matthews is Taco Bell’s chief innovation officer. An innovation officer comes up with new ideas or recognizes the ideas of others. In a recent interview with Business Insider, Matthews said the company’s food development team is always considering how a new menu item will look in photos.

“We want people to talk about it, and blog about it,” Matthews said. “And share their pictures.”

Unicorns Are The Trend Of The Moment

Starbucks wanted that, too. By tapping into the unicorn trend, the brand made sure that its drink would resonate with its intended audience. Unicorn-themed toast, cakes, coffee drinks and doughnuts have proliferated across Instagram in the past few months. More than 4.8 million posts on Instagram are tagged #unicorn.

“Unicorns have these various metaphors that people use — they’re magical, they’re special, they’re original,” said Ira Kalb, an associate professor of clinical marketing at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. Furthermore, he said, unicorns are bright and colorful. And, like the Starbucks drink, you only see them for a short period of time before they disappear.

Denise Lee Yohn, the author of the book “What Great Brands Do,” said she was surprised by the Unicorn Frappuccino.

“I thought it was completely off brand for them,” she said. “I thought it was a cheeky effort to get social sharing about their brand. That’s something Starbucks usually doesn’t do.”

Social Media A Driving Force In Product Development

But overall, she said, brands are definitely thinking more about social media when they’re developing their products. “Five years ago, three years ago, that wasn’t a consideration.”

She said creating social-media-mindful food is a hot marketing trend. “Like every trend, it will get overdone, and it will get burned out and marketers and brands will have to come up with a different way to get people’s attention.”

In the meantime, does she think we’ll see more things like the Unicorn Frappuccino?

She sighed. “I’m afraid that we will.”

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Anchor 2: Central Idea

The central idea of the article is MOST developed by:


describing experts' reactions to the Unicorn Frappuccino


describing the eating habits of the millennial age group


describing the actions companies take to make their food social media-worthy


describing the look and taste of Starbucks' Unicorn Frappuccino in detail

Anchor 2: Central Idea

Which of the following statements would be MOST important to include in an accurate and objective summary of the article?


The Unicorn Frappuccino was widely shared through various social media platforms.


The Unicorn Frappuccino was in such high demand that Starbucks could not keep up with the orders.


The Unicorn Frappuccino most likely appealed to millennials because of its bright colors and sweet taste.


The Unicorn Frappuccino would not have been successful if unicorn hashtags were not trending on social media.

Anchor 3: People, Events & Ideas

Which of the following MOST influenced Starbucks' decision to make the Unicorn Frappuccino?


the fact that the colorful drink would appeal to younger customers, who avoid Starbucks because they do not like coffee


the fact that the drink would look good in photos, and one-third of millennials post photos of their food online


the fact that the drink's sugary taste would make it extremely popular, causing Starbucks to earn high profits


the fact that unicorn-themed beverages had never been marketed before, so it would start a new trend

Anchor 3: People, Events & Ideas

Which of the following people quoted in the article would be MOST likely to agree with the idea that other trends like the Unicorn Frappuccino will occur in the near future?


Christine Couvelier


Liz Matthews


Ira Kalb


Denise Lee Yohn


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