Unicorns have become a symbol of this decade. Perhaps more boldly, unicorns are a symbol of the new teenage generation (Gen-Z).
Few weeks ago, I came across this interesting blog post on unicorns and started researching more on the topic.
As several “megatrends“, these multicolored horses with a frontal horn have lately surfaced as viral web and social media phenomenon. Yet, they are nothing new. Mythological creatures similar to unicorns have been around since antiquity. Eventually, they came back to the physical world as inspiring theme for plentiful merchandise, from phone covers, to yoga outfits, kids-shoes, hair-dyes to conclude with toilet stools. The European fashion retailer Motivi has launched a popular Unicorn line. Apple has introduced an unicorn emoji that immediately went viral. Squattypotty a toilet stool distributor has managed to successfully market its product using the image of a Unicorn potting – through what has been defined as the “greatest viral ad in Internet history” with over 31 million views on Youtube. Recently Starbucks has used the unicorn image to market a over-sugary best-selling limited-edition Frappuccino. Since its launch the #unicornfrappuccino hashtag reached 158,932 posts on Instagram and was widely discussed on Twitter and Facebook.
After stumbling upon so many unicorn references, I realized that there was something to this that involved too many questions I was not able to answer on my own. Frankly, this made me feel quite old. I felt the world was running on something that I could not easily relate to. So, I set the goal of answering (or at least trying to) five questions on Unicorns .
- What are unicorns?
- Where do they come from?
- What do they stand for?
- What are the elements that contributed to this mania?
- And, what can we learn on today’s (business) world from looking at the Unicorn fad?
What are unicorns?
Unicorns are widely recognized as being mythical and legendary creatures represented as horse-like beasts with a single straight pointed and (often) spiraling horn projecting from their forehead. Since antiquity unicorns have been portrayed as magical creatures with distinctively positive powers such as healing sickness or rendering poisoned water potable.
In the new millennium the representation of the unicorn has become more precisely defined. The 21st century unicorn looks like a white horse with glimmering skin and spiraling glimmer horn and rainbow shades and often hair. The glitter and rainbow bits are typical of the new generation unicorn. (Although Rainbow Brite was a popular rainbow-hair horse cartoon in the 1980s, credit to David from GenX)
- In business jargon, “unicorns” are start-up companies valued at more than a billion USD, typically in the software or technology sector.
- Allegedly among teenage boys, a unicorn is That girl that you can’t catch and Everyone has a unicorn. (I found this info in a random blog post so I need to double check this with some actual member of the teenager cohort).
Where do they come from?
It seems that the unicorn achieved global reach since ancient times. Representations of horned-horse-like creatures recurred with similar features in several civilizations. Unicorns were worshiped in Babylon. Accounts from ancient Greece (among which Aristotle) and Egypt mention a horned animal as part of Indian tradition. Animals with features akin to the unicorn are described in the Bible and included in Chinese mythology. Unicorns continued to be portrayed during the Middle Age as decorative elements in sculptures, paintings, furniture and architectures across all Europe and are mentioned by Marco Polo (probably referring to rhinos) and later on in Leonardo da Vinci’s chronicles. Finally, they are often used in heraldry, famously as the symbol of Scotland.
Probably on the wave of the unicorn mania, the North Korean news agency KCNA has communicated that Pyongyang archaeologists in have unearthed an Unicorn’s lair.
What do they stand for?
Unicorns are magical creatures, traditionally carrying strong positive and curative powers. However, in the new millennium the unicorn image has been enriched with new elements and nuances. Importantly, the term conveys different meanings depending on the demographics using it, but generally it keeps reflecting a connection with magic non-real world, beauty and purity. Sometimes stands as a synonym of rarity.
According to Quora the Unicorn Emoji is mostly used by teenagers (especially females but recently also some males, see below) to refer to beauty and cuteness deprived of sexual references. In other communities the unicorn is instead used to signal special features in sexual behavior. For instance in the gay community a unicorn is that person who “prefers developing platonic friendships before leaping into the sheets” and/or avoids to use dating apps to attract people interested in “old fashioned” in person interaction. In polyamorous relationships the unicorn is the single female involved with a couple. The British artist Spike Dennis has opened the Unicorn-Porn blog where he explores sexual references related to unicorn in the art world.
What are the elements that contributed to this mania?
Unicorns rose to the status of pop culture symbols as they are synthesis of values that resonate for current teenagers. First unicorns have a familiar appeal on people who were kids in the 2000s, as they remind of the My Little Pony toys. My Little Pony was launched with great success in the early 1980s especially in the USA and then revived on a global scale at the turn of the century. The product was initially targeting girls but related tv series and cartoons made it popular among (even adult) males as well, the so-call Brony community. Further, unicorns’ rainbow hair can be interpreted as a reference to the symbol of LGBTQ movement. All this well dovetails with gender fluidity which defines most members of Generation Z. Similarly, the unicorn has established so strongly on social media such as Instagram, as it is an ambassador of uniqueness, non-gendered and magical features. The magical element resonates particularly well with present day teenagers as they tend to spend a lot of time online where they have to establish their own identity, somehow detached from the physical world.
What can we learn on today’s world from the Unicorn fad?
What strikes me most about this mania is the actual power of the unicorn image. Indeed the mere association to the unicorn can augment the cuteness and gracefulness of any random object. Therefore, I suspect that the unicorn has become a sort of smoke-and-mirror marketing tool. Unicorns are so awesome and carry such a powerful identity relating to vast array of positive values like tolerance, grace, naivety and candor. This powerful image has a double source of legitimization. First, the magic of the unicorn has atavic roots. It is historically reminiscent of a dreamworld far away from the bare and dull everyday reality. Second, the unicorn is strongly established on the web as viral phenomenon of “cuteness”. Unicorns are gracious, cute and sweet, even when they puke or poop. This is of high value for companies as this image can be used to reshape the common narrative and perception of a product as well as create a major buzz around a brand especially on the web. Starbucks Frappuccino was heavily criticized on social media for being unhealthy as it contained almost 60g of sugar as well as coloring additive. Yet, through the unicorn campaign Starbucks achieved its goal of becoming viral on the web and promoting its whole range of products. In other cases, the unicorn revealed a successful strategy to market products otherwise quite difficult to brand – i.e. the toilet stool mentioned above. Alternatively, the unicorn can be a trail-blazer to appeal segments of the market that might not be easily reachable by traditional strategies. For instance the company Firebox has created a gin called unicorn tears to be purchased for Father’s day.
To conclude, I am not a sociologist but I have the feeling that the unicorn incarnates aspects of the present world unseen before. We millennials are a transition group, the Internet world developed with us and hence we did not worry much about establishing an online identity. Members of Generation Z instead grew with the Internet as a constitutive part of their environment. Their world is more fluid, there are fewer categories, but the other side of the coin is the struggle to emerge from within the masses. Everyone is different, but how to be a unicorn?