Indulging in pumpkin-flavored foods has practically become a fall ritual in the United States, and it all began with a sweet, steaming drink: The Pumpkin Spice Latte.
Since Starbucks introduced the latte 12 years ago, it has ignited an epidemic of pumpkin mania across America. The obsession has influenced brands to release products like Country Crock Pumpkin Spice spread and Pumpkin Pie Spice Pringles.
Whether you indulge in the occasional PSL or not, the craze has us all wondering: why is America so smitten with pumpkin spice?
To answer this question, we’ll look at the beginning of the pumpkin spice craze and the key marketing tactics which helped it flourish.
1. The Pumpkin Spice Latte’s Instant Rise to Stardom
After raking in huge profits from winter-themed flavors like Eggnog Latte and Peppermint Mocha, Starbucks sought to develop a limited-edition drink for autumn.
In 2003, Starbucks’ head of product development, Peter Dukes, was tasked with creating the perfect fall-flavored drink.
He gathered his team in the Starbucks Liquid Lab — a product development space that’s half test kitchen, half chemistry lab — to conquer the challenge.
The team spent three months taste testing different recipes.
A frothy espresso drink perfectly balanced with the flavors of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg — a combination reminiscent of crisp September weekends and homemade Thanksgiving sweets.
As of today, the Pumpkin Spice Latte has been enjoyed well over 200 million times.
Sure, pumpkin spice tastes pretty good to most people. But how can a single drink inspire thousands of other products with the same flavor, and why do people keep buying them?
2. The Limited Edition Approach
The Pumpkin Spice Latte quickly gained popularity because it was only sold for a short period of time.
According to Paul Williams, a brand marketing expert who spent nine years at Starbucks,
“The fact that it was a limited-time flavor made it more attractive to customers and kept it special.”
Limiting the availability of the lattes didn’t make them any more valuable or unique.
However, it ensured there would always be a demand for Pumpkin Spice Lattes during the period in which they were sold.
Brands in all industries have followed suit by employing this strategy, attempting to garner a boost in sales by offering limited edition pumpkin products.
While exclusivity is a crucial element in selling the Pumpkin Spice Latte, strategic social media marketing also contributed to the PSL’s fame.
3. Generating a Viral Social Media Presence
To keep generating demand for Pumpkin Spice Lattes, Starbucks launched more aggressive marketing campaigns each subsequent fall season.
According to an article in the Seattle Met titled “Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte and its Unlikely Obsession” Allecia Vermillion writes:
“Each year brings an increasingly elaborate rollout plan, involving hashtags and secret codes that “unlock” the PSL at a particular store and Facebook contests where fans vie to have the latte land in their city a week earlier than the national debut.”
One of these elaborate efforts occurred last year, when Starbucks decided to create a separate Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram account for the Pumpkin Spice Latte.
These accounts personify the PSL doing different things like going on a hike and watching a movie.
Along with retweeting photos and tagging friends, Starbucks encourages Pumpkin Spice Latte fans to use the #spotthespice hashtag to unlock rewards and promotions.
This social media strategy encourages consumers to essentially advertise for Starbucks, which helps the coffee brand bolster social reach in niche, untapped social media communities.
Pumpkin Spice Marketing Lessons
Here are some takeaways you can apply to your own product marketing:
- Develop products based on past successes
Look back at products that have been successful. What’s the “secret sauce” that attracted consumers? Incorporate these elements into new products whenever you can.
- Launch a limited edition experiment
Limited edition products don’t have to revolve around seasons. You can create a limited offering of any product for any amount of time, as long as you market it correctly and it makes sense to the consumer.
- Generate genuine social advertising
- Social media campaigns are key to generating organic advertising, but it’s not an easy task. Looking at other viral campaigns and evaluating their successes and failures will help you develop your own feasible strategy. In a world infiltrated with Pumpkin, one unanswered question lingers at the back of our minds: Will the pumpkin spice craze last forever?
If the “basic” population keeps snatching it up in droves, maybe.
But now that you know how the PSL came to be, you’re well-equipped to harness the power of pumpkin and start the next nationwide flavor fad.
Michelle Polizzi is the Content Coordinator at Brandfolder, a user-friendly tool for brand asset management. When she’s not busy creating content, you can find her bicycling around Denver or catching a live concert. She’d love to connect with you on LinkedIn.