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Pumpkin Spice: America’s Vice

Arts & Culture | October 12, 2015

In 2003, Starbucks product developers gathered on the seventh floor of their headquarters in Seattle, in a room known as the “Liquid Lab.” It was a spring day, but the team was thinking ahead to September. The company had been having trouble concocting a seasonal drink that could achieve the same popularity as winter’s peppermint mocha and eggnog latte, and now wanted to focus on crafting something for the fall. For inspiration, they decorated the lab with assorted fall paraphernalia and brought in food items including pumpkin pie. Together, they decided to try a bite of pie and wash it down with hot espresso. They finally had it.

“Nobody knew back then what it would grow to be,” Peter Dukes, a Starbucks product manager said in a press release. “It’s taken on a life of its own.”

Since Starbucks created the pumpkin spice latte 12 years ago, it has sold over 200 million of them, making the infamous beverage one of the most popular seasonal products of all time. After Starbucks put pumpkin spice in the national spotlight, other businesses in the food industry realized the flavor’s potential for profit—particularly in recent years. According to a study by Nielsen, a group that analyzes consumer behavior, 37 percent of people in the U.S. purchased at least one pumpkin spice product in 2014. Last year’s pumpkin spice sales represent a growth of 79 percent since 2011 and are a reflection of the staggering increase in pumpkin spice products that have hit the market in the last few years.

When Chobani released pumpkin spice yogurt for the first time in September of 2014, it was their most successful product launch of all time. Trader Joe’s has also embraced the fall flavor in the last few years, and now dozens of pumpkin spice products in orange packaging line their shelves every fall. Products like pumpkin Mini Wheats, M&Ms, and Twinkies can now be found in most grocery stores. But, in spite of the hundreds of these products now on the market, the story of Starbucks’ latte best illustrates how pumpkin spice became an American obsession and how the flavor continues to carve out a space for itself on shelves and behind coffee shop counters every fall.

The success behind the pumpkin spice latte lies in Starbucks’ marketing strategy. Though there are thousands of Starbucks storefronts in the US, at the time of the launch, the chain executed a form of advertising that felt personal to the consumer. Dr. Mark Lang, a marketing professor at Saint Joseph’s University, said the secret to the publicity campaign was that it didn’t feel like it was coming from a massive coffee company. “They tried to make it a very small scale, local kind of promotion. It wasn’t a big corporate campaign with high gloss printed signs and slick marketing, it was much more like chalkboards at your local store with a small homey feel to it, which really aligned with the feeling of fall,” he said.

Dr. Lang believes that this type of campaign was, and still is, especially appealing to consumers who are growing wary of America’s highly commercialized food industry. “People want an alternative,” he said. “Food has become too processed, too corporate, too big, and it’s lacking authenticity and a genuine feeling.” Though Starbucks is the largest coffeehouse company in the world, it successfully cultivated the image of a small, local, artisan business through its pumpkin spice campaign.

Another factor that led to the success of Starbucks’ latte, as well as the hundreds of other pumpkin spice products on the market, is the flavor’s seasonality. Dr. Lang said products that are only available for a short period time are especially appealing to consumers. “By having fruits and vegetables available year round, the whole concept of seasonality has disappeared. People are finding that it is more authentic and interesting for products to be seasonal, have limited availability, and they find that it makes their experience more interesting,” he said. Seasonality itself is a built-in marketing strategy, and creates an urgency to consume a product while it’s still around.

There’s also pressure for food manufacturers and supermarkets to produce and carry seasonal goods. Bill Drake, director of executive education at the Cornell Food Industry Management program, said, “as manufacturers fight for shelf space and sales in what is a pretty stagnant overall market…going into seasonal items is a bigger deal.”

As a seasonal flavor, pumpkin spice has a particular appeal to manufacturers. With a proven high rate of popularity, it’s enticing for producers to jump on the bandwagon and make more and more pumpkin spice products. Dr. Lang said that “marketers want to use the most obvious flavor, one that they don’t have to explain or translate, that the consumer automatically gets.”

Aside from the buzz pumpkin spice creates every fall, the Starbucks latte in particular has also developed a reputation for stirring up drama. In 2012, when Starbucks faced a national shortage of pumpkin spice flavor sauce, customers were left latte-less and disgruntled. Hundreds took to Twitter to vent their frustration. “My world almost ended this morning when the local Starbucks told me they were out,” Jason Sizemore, a 38 year-old from Kentucky, tweeted during the shortage.

Two weeks ago, Hillary Clinton was asked on Facebook whether or not she indulges in the beverage. “The true answer is I used to until I saw how many calories are in them,” she responded. Though clearly unrelated to the campaign, Clinton’s response went viral. Among other sources, TIME, Reuters, and The New York Daily News picked up the story that same day. Many publicly expressed anger at Hillary, including Washington Post blogger Chris Cillizza who wrote an op-ed titled “Hillary is dead, dead wrong—about pumpkin spice lattes.”

Some sources hypothesize that this question was planted with the intent to go viral—the pumpkin spice latte has become a cultural icon and its fans have a strong presence on social media. According to mediaite.com, the question was written by one of Clinton’s former staffers, a public relations specialist who supports the campaign. Mediaite speculates that, as a PR expert, the woman who posed the question knew that Clinton’s response would garner mass attention. Whether this question was planted or not, a small mention of the pumpkin spice latte successfully put Clinton in the national spotlight.

Though its original marketing campaign appealed to America’s discontent with the impersonal and industrialized food industry, pumpkin spice has been institutionalized like the system itself. The flavor is now universally recognized, widely consumed, and something companies know will sell in stores. But some think that the craze over the flavor has gone too far. In an interview with the Associated Press, Cindy Ott, a scholar and author of Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon said that the pumpkin’s reputation as a symbol of “natural abundance” and “goodness” has been smashed by the advent of pumpkin spice.

“It feels like it goes against these values that aren’t supposed to be commercialized,” she said.

But it doesn’t look like the flavor will be less profitable any time soon, and for now, Americans will have to take their pumpkins with a shot of espresso.