Unicorn Drinks and the Power of FOMO

Starbuck Unicorn Frappucino

First things first: For those of you who are not well-versed in millennial slang, UrbanDictionary.com defines FOMO as “a state of mental or emotional strain caused by the fear of missing out.”

Last week I found out that the Postmates food delivery app was offering free Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccinos. After 24 straight hours of seeing a flood of pink-and-purple drinks plastered across my social media accounts, I couldn’t help myself. I ordered it. I then told a few trusted co-workers – because the shame was strong – and got more or less the same reaction:

“Oh, that thing looks so gross! Let me know when it comes so I can try it.”

That kind of response seems to be at the root of this pink-and-purple, flavor-changing, sugar-saturated monstrosity’s popularity. Though it was only available for a limited time, the drink returned 865,000 hits on Google and more than 120,000 #unicornfrappucino hashtags on Instagram just three days into its run. Love it or hate it, Starbucks had a bona fide viral hit on its hands, if for no other reason than it harnessed the intense desire of people to feel included.

Do you really want to spend $5 on something so violently colored that those same colors in nature mean “don’t eat me, I’m poisonous”? Do you really want to try something that combines mango, white chocolate and sour sugar? No, but you also don’t want to be the one person who didn’t. FOMO is real. FOMO sells.

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In honor of this latest craze, here are a few more products from years past that tapped into that same consumer psychology.

The Double Down 

KFC Double-Down

In keeping with the theme of stomach-churning food inventions, the Double Down was a brainchild of Kentucky Fried Chicken that became a pop culture phenomenon in 2010. Initially announced on April Fools’ Day and then launched on a temporary basis, it became so popular that KFC decided to keep it on the menu full-time. And by popular, I mean 10 million of them were sold within the first month. A large number of people who bought them claimed to be doing so “ironically,” but ironic money is still money, and this calorie-laden sandwich definitely earned its keep.

The Snuggie

Snuggle

As a proud owner of a Snuggie – it was gifted to me, I swear – I will be the first to say: Don’t knock it till you try it. The blanket with sleeves broke onto the scene in 2008 and since then has achieved well over half a billion dollars in sales. They were the gag gift of choice for office white elephant parties, surprising even the inventor with their popularity. In the category of “things you never knew you needed,” a Snuggie is definitely a top finisher.

“Pokémon Go” 

Pokemon Go

The most recent example is “Pokémon Go,” which revived a brand that had not been at the forefront of pop culture for 15-20 years and made it the sensation of the summer of 2016. People who had never played Pokémon were suddenly wandering through parks and grocery stores while glued to their smartphones. Even those who considered Pokémon to be for kids or “nerds” were excitedly babbling about which creatures they were capturing. The global phenomenon spawned think pieces at an unprecedented rate. And Niantic executives sat back and watched the money roll in. It may not be as trendy as it was in 2016, but the millions of downloads and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue make it a resounding success.

Those who witnessed the Pet Rock craze in the mid-‘70s can only speculate about how many more Mexican beach rocks would have been relocated around the world had that six-month fad happened in today’s social media environment.

Objectively ridiculous products becoming viral sensations are nothing new and will continue to pop up every few months as long as social media grows and continues to play a dominant role in our daily lives. You can’t manufacture guaranteed virality, but if you’re looking to take your sales to the next level or just want to score with a one-hit wonder, hitting the sweet spot of “outrageous yet appealing” is an excellent way to leverage the power of FOMO.

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Lisa Umar
Lisa began her career as a China analyst in Washington, D.C., before moving to Phoenix to attend the Thunderbird School of Global Management. Since then, she has gained experience in account service, project management, branding, media placement and campaign strategy. Her clients have ranged from resorts to transportation companies and nonprofit organizations, as well as both B2C and B2B companies. She holds a dual B.A. in international affairs and Asian studies from George Washington University, as well as a master’s degree in international marketing from Thunderbird.

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