If you want to instantly polarize a room on a subject other than politics, it only takes a few questions: Cats or dogs? Apple or PC? Coke or Pepsi? In the spirit of Fall, there’s one more question to ask: When it comes to the Pumpkin Spice craze, are you a lover or a hater? No matter your feelings on this fall flavor (and scent) that pops up everywhere in stores and restaurants this time of year, it seems that it’s here to stay—at least for now.
Since we’re well into PSL (Pumpkin Spice Latte) season, we decided to get into the fall spirit by unpacking the history behind the craze, and examine the marketing behind it. Maybe that makes us basic—but as Taylor Swift circa 2014 would say…haters gonna hate. So we’re gonna shake it off and take a look into the marketing brilliance behind the infamous Fall flavor.
Is it really about the taste?
People have been eating pumpkin pie long before the craze took over, but it’s more than just the flavor of pumpkin spice that has made it so popular. It also has to do with tapping into consumer emotions. If the smell or taste of pumpkin spice immediately triggers memories of your grandmother’s famous pumpkin pie, or makes you think of the fall season, that’s no coincidence.
It’s a flavor that can trigger a nostalgic emotional response—and nostalgia is a powerful force when it comes to marketing and selling a product. It also makes sense why, on the other side of the spectrum, there are the outliers who don’t like the flavor and don’t understand the craze that has been growing in popularity since the mid-2000s. If you don’t like pumpkin in the first place, you likely don’t have any good memories associated with it…and you’re probably sitting comfortably with this camp of people:
Who started it?
So, who started the craze that has caught the attention of lovers and haters alike? While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it all took off, much of the credit can be given to Starbucks. The pumpkin spice latte (affectionately dubbed the “PSL”) was born in the Starbucks flavor lab in 2003. Since its birth 14 years ago, the drink has become a Fall staple—so much so that its much-anticipated release seems to have more jurisdiction over the official beginning of the season than the calendar does.
Starbucks has continued to come up with clever ways to announce the arrival of the Pumpkin Spice Latte, and this year was no exception. Social media has become the ideal marketing platform, both organically—people who share everything with the world, including their coffee orders—and through clever marketing campaigns, like the Facebook Live broadcast reminiscent of April the Giraffe’s livestream that broke viewing records.
With the success of the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice latte, other brands have jumped on board, coming out with their own pumpkin spice flavored products. Over the years, the fad has seeped its way into everything from cereal to hummus (we kid you not).
What makes it marketable?
With so many companies churning out pumpkin spice flavored products this time of year, clearly something must be working. It may seem ridiculous, but there are two main factors that make this fad so marketable: Nostalgia and a valuable marketing tool called the limited-time offer (LTO). The power of the LTO only increases when it’s tied to a season or a holiday—both of which are closely tied to nostalgia.
In this case, pumpkin spice is associated with both—and can be thought of as the gateway product that marks the official beginning of a holiday season that begins with Halloween, and takes us almost all the way to Christmas. If pumpkin spice were offered year around, its popularity would instantly decrease, but because it’s a limited-time product, consumers have time to miss it when it’s not available, ramping up the anticipation for the time when it’s due back on the shelves.
Will it ever end?
Whether you’re a fan, and the beginning and end of fall is marked by the availability of the PSL…
or if you’re not afraid to declare your hatred for everything pumpkin spice (you brave soul)…
it seems that, for now, this trend is here to stay. However, as the market gets more and more saturated with pumpkin spiced everything, the chances increase for a dark horse (possibly named Maple) to pull ahead and become the new craze. After all—no fad can last forever. Think about it—when’s the last time you heard someone talk about their amazing Beanie Baby collection? So, for all of you out there counting down the seasons until the fad finally goes extinct, don’t give up hope.
It may be all about pumpkin spice now, but winter is coming and soon the holiday season will be here. Looking for ways to ramp up your marketing strategy for the approaching season? Feel free to contact us! We’re here to help.