What the Pumpkin Spice Latte Craze Can Teach Us About Marketing

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It’s that time of year.

Pumpkin. Spice. Is. Everywhere.

There seem to be two distinct Pumpkin Spice camps: those who love it and live for it (not me) and those who cannot stand it for another minute and kind of wish it would go away (me). A few weeks ago, the media found it worth covering, during his testimony before Congress, that even Robert Mueller has chosen sides on the controversial pumpkin spice debate (I mean, really?). Regardless of which camp you find yourself in, let the pumpkin spice craze be a lesson to us all: something as inane as pie spices can become an unforgettable social object.

The first day of autumn is officially September 23, so it is mind-boggling to me that:
(a) people are so ready for summer to be over (I live in Atlanta; I grew up in Florida, so I get it: summer is HOT! However, it’s usually the people most eager for fall who then complain when it’s cold — you can’t have it both ways, people!), and
(b) people want to mix their seasonal flavors (Fall is my favorite season, so I understand reveling in it but come on, people! Let summer be rosé and lemonade, and patios and autumn be scarves and pumpkin pie and knee boots, and let’s not mix them up!).

Starbucks, however, is more than happy to appease — I mean, just look at the insanity of these PSL launch dates over the years, according to Business Insider. As early as August 2 this year, fans of the PSL were freaking out over rumors that the famous Pumpkin Spice Flavored Sauce (I mean, doesn’t it just sound gross?) had begun arriving in select stores. Regardless of autumn’s official beginning, the PSL launch, which many have begun to regard as the new start of the season, seems to hover around a month early — a month too soon, in my (not so humble) opinion.

Hats off to Starbucks, though — they have turned what started as an unpopular idea (more about that below) into an absolute craze. (Insert me, rolling my eyes here.) And 2019 is the earliest Official Release Date yet: get ready for it, people — the PSL hits Starbucks stores on August 27.

In an effort to dive deep into the world of the PSL craze, I set up a Google Alert for “pumpkin spice latte” on July 23, 2019. I have not been shocked to find that I have received at least one email a day, every day, from sources that range from Business Insider to Bustle, MarketWatch to People Magazine, and from The Week Magazine to, of course, Starbucks’ own Starbucks Stories. Every single day, there is “news” about the PSL.

I believe I’ve adequately established the madness of the PSL (just in case any of you are living under a rock and simply had no idea). This novelty, this fascination, this obsession brings up some important questions: Who really started the pumpkin spice craze? Was it Starbucks? Was it some little-known, one-person pumpkin-loving lobbyist?

Does it even matter?

The answer is: no, it really doesn’t matter who started it (but if you’re curious: yes, it was Starbucks, and I’ve posted several articles at the bottom of this post detailing my research for this article…and more). What matters is that, for one short part* of every year, the PSL — and all of the pumpkin spice bandwagoners — is everywhere you look, just like you want to be everywhere your clients look. Peter Dukes, Director of Espresso America for Starbucks, who invented the pumpkin spice latte, said, “Nobody knew back then what it would grow to be. It’s taken on a life of its own.” In fact, the pumpkin spice latte almost never happened (cue ominous music…but more on that in a moment).

Whether you love or hate the Pumpkin Spice Latte (and all the insanity surrounding it), we can all learn some things from Starbucks’ iconic beverage:

  • You may have crazy ideas, but if you believe in them and stand up for them — you’ll never know until you try. As I said, the Pumpkin Spice Latte almost didn’t happen. But creator Peter Dukes believed the drink would be a winner. He stood behind it, pushed it to execs, worked on it, stood up for it, perfected it…and look where his little creation is now: pretty much the coffee giant’s most popular drink. Talked about all year, anticipated for months, lauded and celebrated. Trust your gut and believe in your crazy idea — it may be the one that transforms your business.
  • Don’t be afraid of niche marketing. Starbucks estimates they’ve served over 200 million Pumpkin Spice Lattes and made over $100 million in revenue from sales of the drink since it was rolled out in 2003 (and those statistics are from 2016). The PSL (as the drink is affectionately referred to by fans and Starbucks employees the world over) even has its own verified Twitter account, @TheRealPSL (well, had…the account is still there but seems to have fizzled with its last tweet back on the 2018 release date, but hey, the account likely fizzled because Starbucks just didn’t need it anymore). Now that’s some successful niche marketing. What do you do best? What’s your niche?
  • When you find something that works, stay with it. There will always be a new “squirrel” — new fads and shiny objects thrown in front of you to distract you. But when you find a marketing technique or strategy that works for you, stick with it. After all, remember this: the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte recipe has been unchanged for 15 years since it was rolled out to the public for the first time in the fall of 2003. Don’t get distracted by shiny objects if you have something that works for you! (In fact, for the first time in sixteen years, Starbucks is introducing a new pumpkin spice drink: the Pumpkin Spice Brew. But the recipe for the OG PSL remains unchanged.)
  • Explore how the concept of the LTO (limited-time offer) can work for you. Think about it: if the PSL was around throughout the year, would people really care about it? Would the drink have the same buzz if it was a perennial offering? If we’re being honest, the answer is probably no. The PSL is only available for a few short months, and Starbucks never gives much notice for its release date nor gives a true idea of how long the PSL Season will last, only commenting with cryptic “while supplies last” messaging. But PSL lovers fear the announcement that the Peppermint Latte and Eggnog Latte are coming soon, as it means the demise of the fall season and, similarly, the PSL. What could you offer your clients and consumers on a limited-time basis that would excite and entice them? (However, don’t even get me started about the “secret” Starbucks menu and the possible availability of PSL-themed and -flavored beverages at other times of the year… When you control the menu, you control the availability, so your LTO may not be all that L if you get my drift.)
  • Employ nostalgia marketing to tug your client’s heartstrings because what’s more nostalgic than home? One of the reasons researchers believe Americans go crazy for all things pumpkin is nostalgia. When creating your marketing plans, think about how you can employ the senses and feelings of nostalgia to evoke an emotional reaction from your clients and consumers. Make your marketing feel like home, and clients will feel at home with you.
  • Find ways to riff on your success. Beginning in 2019, there are now “official” Starbucks PSL spin-offs available for purchase in grocery stores for fans to enjoy at home. Starbucks announced that, while customers eagerly await the arrival of the famed PSL in its cafes, U. S. grocery stores will begin carrying Starbucks® Pumpkin Spice Creamer, Starbucks® Pumpkin Spice Flavored Ground Coffee K-Cup® Pods, Starbucks® Pumpkin Spice Flavored Ground Coffee, Starbucks® Pumpkin Spice Latte K-Cup® Pods, Starbucks® VIA® Instant Pumpkin Spice Latte, and Starbucks®Pumpkin Spice Latte Ready-to-Drink. You get the picture, right?
  • If you’re providing value to your clients, they will shout it from the rooftops. When you give consumers, clients, and your sphere of influence what they really want, they’ll tell people. And isn’t that what we want in the real estate profession? Our satisfied clients tell everyone to build a referral-based business based on word-of-mouth. Starbucks, of course, is a huge corporation with an enormous advertising budget — likely greater than yours or mine. And yet, during the fall, customers express their #PSL enthusiasm with an average of more than 3,000 tweets per day. That’s some pretty powerful word-of-mouth.

So if you’re one of those in the pro-PSL camp, I will join in saying, “Welcome, Autumn!” (Now that my birthday is over, I will say this and actually mean it.) Don those scarves and knee-high boots, beckon in the cooler temps, and go ahead and enjoy that PSL (starting tomorrow) — I may not join you in quaffing that overly-sweet terrible beverage, but I will celebrate fall with you for as long as we can.

I will close with this (almost) final thought: Take all of these lessons in and, as you’re sipping on your first Pumpkin Spice Latte of the season, think of ways to be memorable to your clients and give them what they want, every day, all year long.

And now, for a little levity:

Interested in more about the Pumpkin Spice Latte Craze? Here’s some follow-up reading for you (yes, I totally went down a rabbit hole on this one…):


*not short enough