The biggest limited-time offer (LTO) sensation of 2017 was the Unicorn Frappuccino, hooves down. For those who missed the mania, Starbucks released a color-changing drink with “magical flavors” for a few days at select locations in the U.S. and Canada. What happened next is the stuff of legend.

Consumers appeared in droves at participating Starbucks locations and immediately transformed the Unicorn Frappuccino into a viral and global sensation on social media. Turns out, a novelty drink that shifts between purple, blue, and pink with the swirl of a straw is picture-perfect for sharing.

And share they did: over 150,000 Instagram posts tagged with #unicornfrappuccino sprung up overnight as customers uploaded videos and images of the unique experience. What started as a short-lived LTO quickly became a long-term social media feeding frenzy that garnered mass appeal on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and other social platforms all around the world.

Needless to say, Starbucks found the LTO pot of gold. Not only did they benefit from an extended period of social media dominance, but Starbucks also received tons of free media coverage, broadened their appeal to a younger audience of non-caffeine drinkers, and experienced an impressive uptick in sales and stock price.

While it’s hard to match the enticement of unicorns, Starbucks continues to encourage customers to share their experiences on Instagram by delivering new Frappuccino LTOs that range from holiday-themed (Halloween’s Zombie Frappuccino, the Christmas Tree Frappuccino) to those that continue to border on the fantastico (the Crystal Ball Frappuccino that predicts the future).

Sprinkle some #socialmedia fairy dust

What’s notable about the enchanting Unicorn Frappuccino success story is that it illustrates the strong correlation between successful LTOs and social media. In fact, Starbucks revealed that their decision to create the Unicorn Frappuccino sprung directly from social media where they’d noticed the popularity of unicorn-themed posts, especially around food and drinks.

However, Starbucks was also smart enough to recognize that capitalizing on social media trends isn’t enough. They wanted their Unicorn Frappuccino to look photographable, have noteworthy features that could be shown off on video, and be represented by colorful branding. In short, the LTO needed to be—in social media parlance—“Instaworthy” (translation: deserving of a post on Instagram due to its visual appeal and unique nature).

Why did Starbucks care so much about the optics? Because social media helps create excitement before an LTO launch through viral sharing of low-cost content and then provides free post-launch marketing through customers who share their own photos, videos, and experiences.

With 48 percent of all consumers trying LTO menu items every month, it’s not surprising that restaurants are working hard to stay competitive and deliver innovative treats that are executed flawlessly and are considered instaworthy.

Check out these stats about Instagram users:

  • 80 percent follow at least one business
  • 60 percent find new products on the app
  • 75 percent take action after seeing a brand’s post

The last point is important because it means the consumer interacts with the brand in some direct and meaningful way (e.g., visiting the company’s website or sharing a post) that can be captured as a measurable customer event.

However, the flip side of these viral attributes is that companies must deliver on exactly what they promise, or they will likely feel the equally quick wrath and backlash of the consumer.

The magic is in the learning

For Starbucks, what started as an observation about social media trends turned into a social media success, but a key component of this outcome was their execution: customers were handed Unicorn Frappuccinos that lived up to the expectations of the advertisements and social media posts.

In other words, the LTO was Instaworthy because employees were trained on how to make the Unicorn Frappuccino correctly and consistently from the get-go. Each and every customer, especially the early ones, experienced the intended product, which helped the LTO go viral in all the right ways.

For restaurant brands, this point should never be underestimated. Employees must have direct access to the right training information while on the job in order to properly execute LTOs.

While that may sound obvious, many quick-service, fast-casual, and casual dining restaurants lack modern technology solutions in their kitchens. Employees are often forced to rely on outdated training formats like paper binders or files (PDFs, PPTs) that are posted to an intranet and only accessible in the back office, which means employees are expected to remember how to make the new menu item after receiving training one time, if that.

Not surprisingly, these old-fashioned training methods spark 66 percent of employees to complain that content isn’t in a format that helps them in their moment of need. Given the high turnover rates in the restaurant industry (146 percent for limited-service brands, 103 percent for full-service), it behooves companies not to further frustrate their employees by frequently running LTOs and then providing insufficient training or poor access to the resources needed to do the job.

Thankfully, there’s a simple answer: modernizing through mobile technology provides the tools that restaurant employees need to eliminate training challenges and learn LTOs in a seamless fashion.

Execute #instaworthy LTOs every time

In a world where 50 percent of Millennials and Generation X customers race to be the first in their friend group to try a new LTO and document it on social media, there’s immense pressure to get each and every LTO delivered right the first time.

When employees can access training anytime, anywhere on a mobile device, it becomes easier for them to practice LTOs long before the first customer places an order. By learning new menu items at their own pace and in the context of the job (in the kitchen), employees are not only more engaged in their learning, but they also retain information better and deliver LTOs that look and taste exactly as designed.

However, learning on a mobile device is only the first step, as mobile training also should drive increased usage and engagement and improve customer satisfaction (CSAT) scores. That’s why it’s critical to pick a technology provider that offers the ability to digitize and distribute your content and easily analyze performance. Consumption of material is simplified for the employee, and monitoring and understanding content effectiveness is simplified for HQ and managers with data and analytics.

Monitoring employee usage also allows leaders to ascertain engagement levels of employees and how prepared each store location is to deliver a new LTO, which helps ensure brand consistency. It can also provide the data needed to draw correlations between effective training and sales.

At the end of the day, even the best designed LTO won’t deliver the intended customer results unless your employees are enabled to make the new product. That’s why you need technology on both sides of the coin: for your employees to deliver the goods and for your customers to help you make every LTO a viral success.

Neha Sharma is the head of marketing at Inkling, a frontline workforce enablement company, whose mobile platform gives field employees access to the projects and supporting information needed to execute with excellence, while providing operation leaders total visibility into field performance. Leading global brands such as McDonald’s, Allstate and Comcast, trust Inkling for their field operations management needs. Founded in 2009, Inkling is based in San Francisco, California. For more information, visit
Outside Insights, Story, Technology