Case of the Unicorn Frappuccino: Cafe Sues Starbucks Over Trademark

With pink and blue rainbow swirls, it was playfully eye-catching. And Starbucks staffers had a field day promoting the Unicorn Frappuccino over social media.

But a cafe known as The End Brooklyn was not amused.

The End serves up healthful drinks in coffee cups to customers in New York City’s trendy Williamsburg area. And it filed a lawsuit that accuses Starbucks of grabbing its own Unicorn Latte idea.

The End hasn’t trademarked its Unicorn Latte, so a trademark infringement challenge is a long shot. Yet The End’s parent company, Montauk Juice Factory, has had an application for “Unicorn Latte” pending since January with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

A Unicorn Latte at The End contains dates, vanilla bean, ginger, lemon juice, cashews, and maca root. The End applies natural colors to the whipped cuppa, delighting customers with artistic flourishes. Starbucks, in turn, whipped up a drink concept with similar pastel hues, and sold it under the name Unicorn Frappuccino. Or, in the branding language of Starbucks, Unicorn Frappuccino® Blended Crème.

The End sees Starbucks as usurping the idea’s appeal, as customers now associate unicorn cafe drinks with the bigger chain.

Starbucks has fired back at the smaller company. It credits social media users’ excitement over “fun, spirited and colorful unicorn-themed” products for inspiration. Starbucks is well known for marketing to young adults by showing off its Frappuccino lines on social media. And Starbucks points out that its swirly pink and blue model has already finished its limited run, which played out in April.

But Montauk Juice Factory wants compensation and an apology, claiming that Starbucks took an unfair competitive advantage. It insists that the social media buzz for unicorn-themed cafe drinks was its own handiwork — and Starbucks pounced on it.

While the two companies face off over their rights to their pink and blue concoctions, they’re certainly not the only food and drink industry players to seize upon the popularity of unicorns. Indeed, Bangkok is home to the Unicorn Cafe, which attracts international swoons with its all-things-unicorn theme.

In any case, Starbucks likely regards the whole trademark argument as a tempest in a teacup. It’s now selling Dragon Frappuccino.