How Starbucks Infected us With Pumpkin Spice Fever and Sold 350 Million Lattes

Blog Pumpkin Spice

That’s a latt-e lattes! Heh.

According to the calendar, this Saturday marks the first official day of fall. Of course, everyone knows that fall started on August 28 when Starbucks released the much-awaited Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL). With so many pumpkin spice products, everything from whey protein powder to deodorant, it’s hard to remember sometimes that it all began with a humble Seattle coffee shop and a warm beverage. Just kidding. None of us will ever, ever forget. But it is interesting, from a marketing standpoint, to think about the how and why. Here are the exact steps Starby’s took (well, as observed by yours truly):

Don’t fix what’s not broken

Imagine a time when the PSL didn’t exist. Go ahead, stretch your brain waaaay back to 2003. No one knew how Harry Potter ended. Facebook hadn’t yet launched. Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachay were prime time Newlyweds…. The world was a different place, one where the Starbucks geniuses were just debuting a drink inspired by their popular new holiday line that included hits like the Peppermint Mocha and Gingerbread Latte. Yep, Starbucks had stumbled on a formula it felt pretty good about: warm beverage + seasonal flavoring + limited availability = instant winner. Pumpkin Spice was a natural progression from the holidays. (Technicolor Unicorn Fraps aren't something you jump right into, folks.)

… Or do, if you piss people off

Perhaps you’ve never given the PSL this much thought, but the flavor is actually based on the spice blend – cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg – made popular by McCormick® Pumpkin Pie Spice, and not the big round gourd itself. Hence, Pumpkin Spice Latte and not Pumpkin Latte (yuck?). And yet, in 2014 when one plucky food blogger broke the story that the PSL (gasp!) did not have big, stringy bits of pumpkin blended into its creamy goodness… well, you can imagine the outrage. So, how did Starbucks respond? 1. By being transparent and publishing its PSL ingredients and nutrition facts, and 2. by adding pureed pumpkin. Take that!

Tap into some serious feels

Speaking of magical spice blends and iconic gourds, turns out that the food chemists behind the PSL are long overdue for the Nobel Prize in Food Feels (OK, that’s not a thing, but this next part is seriously fascinating.) In a nutshell, 70 percent of “taste” is actually retronasal smell, and our sense of smell works differently than our other senses. Smells take a shorter route through our brains and, subsequently, have a more direct connection to the memory regions. So those sweet, peppery PSL notes? They are putting you on the fast track down memory lane to happy days spent baking fall treats with a loved one.  

Oh, what’s that you say? You never had a lovable Nonna or MeeMaw to bake with on crisp autumn mornings? Well, pumpkins are a symbol of our idyllic colonial roots. Hating on PSLs is un-American.

(P.S. Those brilliant food chemists also put in super high doses of sugar, which we all know is a drug, so you’re probably semi-chemically addicted, too!)

Giveth and taketh away, PSL gods

It kind of goes without saying but the PSL’s limited availability is part of its allure. Psychologists refer to this as the scarcity principle, with the main takeaway being that people place a higher value on things that are (or are perceived as) rare. So, the mere fact that we can only purchase PSLs during a narrow timeframe tricks our psyches into believing they are (perhaps) better than they are. Think you’re too smart for this? Who among us is above that ripple of excitement each year when the Shamrock Shake returns? Something made 60+ million people buy Shamrock Shakes, and it’s probably not that minty milkshakes are amazeballs (in fact, on paper, they sound kind of gross.) Scarcity, friends. It's basic economics.

Post it, or it didn’t happen

How do you market scarcity? In part by blasting your limited availability message from all of your social channels. Over the last few years, Starbucks has generated massive hype around the PSL’s release date; that’s a no-brainer. But what the brand has really excelled at is creating a community around PSLs. The PSL has its own Instagram account (with 36.8k followers!) and a verified Twitter feed. In years past, Starbucks also used Tumblr to promote special passes for pre-release PSLs and – get this – created a real-life, secret society for PSL lovers. (You’ll know them by their orange knit coozies. Seriously.)

Cue the basic bitches

If you Instagram it, they will come. Unless you’ve taken a five-year internet hiatus, you’re probably familiar with the term “basic bitch.” You know, that overtly vanilla demographic of counter-hipster Millennial women who take pride in loving really mainstream things. They wear Ugg boots, leggings and Juicy Couture hoodies. They adore Ryan Gosling and shopping at Target. And the PSL? It’s a mandatory prop. While allowing your brand to become the butt of a pop culture joke may seem like a bad move, it has only made the PSL even more invincible with a built-in, hashtag-loving target audience who can afford to frequently spend $5 on vente PSLs and give you free advertising with carefully filtered photos.

However, it is important to note that research shows PSL purchasers are pretty evenly split down the gender line, and nearly half are over the age of 45. Basic bitches may be the most vocal PSL lovers, but they’re just a drop in the big barrel o’ warm, creamy pumpkin spice that we’re all drowning in.

Are you launching a new product? Interested in spicing up your marketing efforts? Give us a shout!

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