A month ago, the Melbourne-based skincare company Frank Body announced on Instagram that it would be launching a new body scrub that leaves your skin with a sparkly glow. The brand isn’t a fan of kitschy product names, so it marketed the powder (which came in an iridescent pouch) simply as a “Shimmer Scrub.” But the Aussie company didn’t realize that its latest offering had a built-in pop culture hook. Right now, the best way to sell American millennial women anything vaguely shiny, glittery, or colorful is to “unicornify” it. That demographic is mad for the mythical horned creatures: Searches for “unicorns” reached an all-time high in the month of April.
“Unicorn was not a word that we would have used to describe the scrub,” Jess Hatzis, cofounder of Frank Body, tells Fast Company. “But it just so happened that its release was quite timely, right on the cusp of a trend that was sweeping through the States–though not so much here in Australia.”
Teen Vogue, Marie Claire, and Fashionista immediately dubbed Frank Body’s newest offering a “unicorn scrub”–and consumers could not click “buy” fast enough. A waitlist exploded to 50,000 on the company’s website, and when the product hit stores, it sold out. “I think it has something to do with the broader cultural and political landscape in America,” Hatzis says. “Unicorns represent every happy dream you ever had as a child, and that is useful when you’re living in an age where things are darker and scarier than you’d like.” (Now hip to the trend, Frank Body touts Shimmer Scrub as the go-to product “for the days you feel like being a unicorn.”)
Over the past year, American brands have been slapping unicorns onto pretty much everything. Unicorn-themed makeup popped up on drugstore aisles: You could purchase Wet n Wild rainbow highlighters, unicorn tears lip gloss, and even a glitter gel called Unicorn Snot. You could go to a salon and ask for a manicure that made your nails look like sharp, glittery unicorn horns.
Then, unicorn food became a thing. Pinterest lit up with homemade “unicorn toast”– bread covered in cream cheese spruced up with psychedelic food coloring. (Sprinkles too if you want to get fancy.) You could buy cakes and macarons bedazzled with unicorn horns. For four days in April, Starbucks sold a pink and purple Unicorn Frappuccino that “magically” transformed from sweet to sour.
And just in time for the summer, enormous unicorn floats with rainbow colored manes are appearing in pools around the country. Etsy and Amazon have become unicorn cornucopias, selling duct tape, leggings, cookie cutters, house slippers, tape dispensers, stuffed animals, and more.
Our fascination with unicorns is nothing new. For at least two millennia, people in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East have imagined horned horse-like animals with magical powers. But at various points in history–depending on the cultural climate–unicorns have represented different things. They’ve been terrifying beasts that would pierce you in the stomach or sexual-charged creatures associated with virgins. “Every generation has its own version of any monster,” Diana Peterfreund, the author of two popular books about unicorns, tells me.”In the Middle Ages, the unicorn was connected to the Christ figure. In Scotland, the unicorn was symbolic of the battle for independence.”
So what does our current obsession with unicorns tell us about our own culture?
“One distinct quality about unicorns we’ve clung to lately is their rarity,” Peterfruend says. “People talk about spotting a unicorn or finding a unicorn as something that is extremely rare.”
Unicorns started appearing more frequently in conversations in 2013, when Eileen Lee, a venture capitalist, started referring to startups that had achieved billion-dollar valuations as the “unicorn club.” The term then started to become synonymous with “unique.” Finding the right guy became locating a “unicorn boyfriend.” Sex writer Dan Savage referred to a bisexual woman interested in getting into a threesome with a couple as a unicorn.
But a year ago–around the same time that the U.S. election went into full swing–the unicorn became a signifier of happy, fun-loving, and cute. “To people here in America in the 21st century, what we think of the most when it comes to unicorns is the sparkly part,” Peterfruend says. “We don’t think of hooves or horns or virgins. Our current culture’s idea about unicorns is based less on actual legends about unicorns and more on the fact that we all had that Lisa Frank Trapper-Keeper in our teens. Unicorns are now inextricable from rainbows.”
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This makes sense. Aminata Tall, communications director at Wet n Wild–which has recently released an entire unicorn makeup line–believes that the trend has everything to do with nostalgia. The version of unicorns we’re seeing now are inspired by touchstones of children of the ’90s: Lisa Frank, My Little Pony, Care Bears. For women in their twenties and thirties, that might seem like a happier time. “People are looking for an escape from reality,” Tall says. “One of the main reasons for this is probably that the current climate is not the brightest.”
Wet n Wild targets consumers in their teens, but it also has a strong base of older customers who remember using those products when they were teens. “We’re the brand that women tend to buy first because it’s affordable,” Tall says. “When they are teens they can add makeup to their mom’s basket at the drugstore. For the young, the unicorn trend is just fun and colorful, but older millennials are drawn to it because it reminds them of something they grew up with. It’s a reminder of what they used to play with, watch on TV, and love.”
Of course, generations prior to millennials remember unicorn pop culture too. In the ’70s, the creatures galloped onto T-shirts and posters (frequently accompanied by their best friend the rainbow); in the ’80s, they dominated Trapper Keepers and were among the hottest items in the sticker collecting craze–especially the puffy, glittery ones. “I first remember them in stickers growing up,” says Jen Gotch, founder and creative director of Ban.Do, a lifestyle brand known for spotting and amplifying trends. “I’m 45, much older than our millennial customers, but unicorns remind me of my childhood too.”
Gotch is at least partly responsible for the eight-foot long unicorns–and matching floating cupholders–currently floating around in pools all over the country. Last January, she noticed that a brand called #Floaty had started producing the inflatable beasts. Gotch insisted on selling them on Ban.Do’s site, much to the consternation of her sales team. “Nobody believed that a giant $99 unicorn float would sell,” she says. “But I had an instinct that unicorns were about to make a comeback: They seem to come back into our consciousness every few decades. And the floats–which I admit are a little ridiculous–immediately sold out.”
Other companies have been quick to capitalize on the trend as well. A year ago, an Esty cosmetics shop called Bitter Lace Beauty created a $22 rainbow highlight palette called “Prism.” It became a viral hit, quickly selling out and showing up on eBay for $1,225. In September 2016, Wet n Wild created its own rainbow highlighter for $5.99, which it marketed as Unicorn Glow. “It sold out in three hours on our website,” Tall, the brand’s communications director, says. “The three hours included server issues because we weren’t prepared for how many customers were going to flood the site.”
But something like a unicorn trend can come and go in a flash, so it takes a nimble brand to produce something that customers want for only a brief moment. Tall says that Wet n Wild is equipped to do this because it controls its supply chain. The company can make a small order and receive products within weeks, as opposed to the six-to nine-month product development period that is more typical in the beauty industry. After the success of the rainbow highlighter, Wet n Wild created an entire Unicorn Glow Box that has a highlighting brush in shape of a unicorn horn, iridescent lipsticks with unicorns carved into the side, and packaging featuring a holographic unicorn.
Even brands that haven’t created entirely new products simply put a unicorn spin on what’s already there. A cafe in Brooklyn started making healing unicorn lattes and an Orange County deli sold rainbow colored unicorn bagels. “Take the unicorn Frappuchino at Starbucks,” Peterfreund points out. “There’s nothing unicorn-y about it. It doesn’t have a horn or anything: It’s just rainbow colored.”
Observing the U.S. unicorn craze from afar, Frank Body’s Jess Hatzis interprets it as evidence that Americans are very deliberately seeking out symbols of hope and joy–and perhaps even projecting this desire onto things that wouldn’t ordinarily be associated with mirth (like toast). “I can see how people have made the connection,” she says. “When you look at a lot of illustrations of unicorns from the ’90s, they’re often glimmery and sparkly and leaving holographic trails in the sky. But if you think about it literally, a unicorn is a horse with a horn.”
So how much longer will the world be awash with these exquisite equines? It’s hard to say. In 2015, I wrote a story about the mermaid trend in pop culture. Bars brought in water tanks in which “mermaids” would perform shows, companies made fins for kids to wear in the pool, and fitness companies offered aquatic “mermaid” aerobics. Two years later, the sirens still have a presence: It’s not uncommon to find cafés that offer mermaid drinks alongside unicorn ones.
But brands are not expecting magically long-lasting results. “It’s just a trend,” says Wet n Wild’s Tall. “This is going to last maybe another month or two, and then it’s going to be something else. That’s why we’re creating limited edition unicorn collections, rather than products that are part of our permanent collection.”
Much like the elusive horned creature itself, this trend could disappear at any moment.