You Probably Only Like Pumpkin Spice Lattes Because of Marketing
Never has a drink been as controversial or as emblematic as the Pumpkin Spice Latte. The release of the Pumpkin Spice Latte each year has come to mark the unofficial beginning of fall - even for those who don’t indulge in this seasonal treat.
Then, there are the PSL haters who despise the PSL and everything it stands for. Like the flavor. Or the way Starbucks has taken over the entire coffee business. And the monetization of our childhood memories. And couples dressing up to go take pictures in a pumpkin patch. The fact that it’s a coffee drink that has its own acronym, for God's sake.
Love it or hate it (and yes, we KNOW a lot of you have strong opinions) the Pumpkin Spice Latte is a marketing phenomenon that has changed the way we experience autumn. Read to find out how the PSL came to take over our lives, for better or worse.
History of the Pumpkin Spice Latte
Pumpkin flavor has existed forever, and we can trace recipes for “pumpkin pie” back to the 1600s. Pumpkin Pie as we know it has been an American fall staple since the 1930s when spice companies released their pumpkin spice, meaning customers could buy one product for their pies instead of several. Pumpkin and coffee together is no new phenomenon either - in fact, the memory of eating pumpkin pie with a cup of coffee helped spur the idea for the PSL.
Up until the release of the Pumpkin Spice Latte in 2004, all of Starbucks’ seasonal drinks were based around winter. Executives realized that fall was a prime opportunity for a seasonal drink since so many people engage in fall-specific activities and follow fall themes. Consumers are primed to spend money on fall when fall arrives.
Researchers began working on a cinnamon-streusel latte, which later became the Cinnamon Dolce. But they decided this drink wasn't specific enough to fall to become THE drink of fall.
Thus, the Pumpkin Spice Latte was born. A drink that originally did not even contain any pumpkin flavor - just the spices you might find in a pumpkin pie. Yes, that’s right. You were not actually drinking pumpkin until 2015 when Starbucks revamped the recipe. But the pumpkin isn’t the point. It’s just supposed to REMIND you of pumpkin. Coffee science.
Marketing of the PSL
Regardless of how you specifically feel about the Pumpkin Spice Latte, it's undeniably successful. One out of every three people has bought a Pumpkin Spice Latte within the last year, and the drink generates $80 million in annual revenue. It has launched what is essentially its own industry, spilling over into other coffee businesses, desserts, candles, fashion, and more. You can literally dye your hair the color “pumpkin spice.” It's so widely acknowledged and its identity sealed that there are numerous social media accounts dedicated to pumpkin spice. It's practically a person.
Two major marketing concepts are at play for Pumpkin Spice Latte marketing, and campaigns revolve around these two concepts:
- Scarcity: Scarcity is one of our most basic economic principles. When something is rare, its value increases. The nature of not being able to get a Pumpkin Spice Latte for the majority of the year means that when it does come around, people clamor to get it before it runs out. Pumpkin Spice Lattes also have a set start and end date which drives us to get as much as we can while it's available. Plus, that limited availability signals a strong association between the PSL and the fall season. Having it available for just a few short months means we create an identity around it, and tie our own identities to it, as well. The release of this drink is an Event, and its launch is treated with this excitement each year, and marketing campaigns to back it up.
- Nostalgia: The Pumpkin Spice Latte brings back memories. Fall spurs a lot of great times for kids like pumpkin picking, Halloween, playing in the leaves, and the comfort of family holidays. Fall has a clear identity, from its colors to its flavors, ad the Pumpkin Spice Latte plays right into our nostalgia for our fall childhood memories.
We have a strong emotional reaction to Pumpkin Spice - nostalgia is a powerful tool both for eliciting joy and sadness, both of which push consumers to buy products.
Why Are People Obsessed With the PSL?
These strong emotional ties are hard to ignore. The associations with fall and all the comfort and happiness it brings are where the PSL has come to shine. Since the PSL has essentially become its own identity, PSL drinkers lean into it as a part of their OWN identity. If you’re a vocal PSL lover, you might also lean into other parts of #fall.
Basically? The PSL is the undisputed ruler of fall, and of your feelings.
Why People Love to Hate it
Some people just don’t like the flavor and think the whole Pumpkin Spice Season is overblown. There are a lot of other fall flavors (looking at you, apple and sweet potato fans) and an entire season revolving around a drink can be exhausting. Pumpkin spice is EVERYWHERE in the fall, and for the more marketing-skeptic, the constant focus on pumpkin spice can feel manufactured and fatiguing.
On the other hand, there’s likely also a backlash to the perception of the PSL’s identity and the identity of those who drink them. PSL critics describe the PSL and its drinkers as "basic" and push back at the PSL for allegedly encouraging an Instagram-filter-esque view of fall, and believe that it’s a drink most enjoyed by white women who wear cardigans and tall boots to the pumpkin patch each fall (you've seen the memes). To be clear, these are not our views, but it's a well-known stereotype from internet culture that stems from society's contempt for women.
The truth is, it’s a drink. Anyone can drink a PSL. But emotions are powerful, and every year the Pumpkin Spice Latte makes its debut and stirs the proverbial coffee pot once more.
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