Drink In These Marketing Lessons From Pumpkin Spice Lattes

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We’ve had two chilly mornings in the Carolinas so far this month. Two. Autumn doesn’t officially arrive until September 22nd.  But it’s here already, on every supermarket shelf and coffee house sandwich board: pumpkin spice.

Can we take a moment and just reflect on the marketing phenomenon that is pumpkin spice? This ridiculously simple blend of powdered cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg — the same stuff our grandmothers used to flavor pie for generations — saunters into our lives each September, and for two months straight, we gleefully part with millions of dollars to ensure that every sweet treat we consume is pumpkin flavored. It’s astounding.

What gives, pumpkin spice? More importantly, what can our businesses learn from your magical ways?

Building an Empire

Think back to your childhood. Do you remember pumpkin spice everything? Likely not. That’s because it wasn’t much of a flavor to us (outside of pumpkin pie, of course) until Starbucks launched the Pumpkin Spice Latte in 2003. And, boy, did they launch it. Since its debut, the Pumpkin Spice Latte has been served over 200 million times and makes an estimated $100 million in revenues each fall. How do you like them pumpkins?

Other companies followed the PSL (that’s Pumpkin Spice Latte for addicts) craze and with great returns — $361 million annually, to be exact — but it’s Starbucks who really got the pumpkin spice ball rolling. Here’s what they did.

The Pumpkin Spice Strategy in 3 Steps (and how you can copy it)

  1. Here today, gone tomorrow.

    Exclusivity is one of the oldest tricks in marketing, and Starbucks has mastered it better than anyone. One of the things that make the PSL so alluring is that it’s only available for a limited time each year. If you don’t take out your wallet NOW and buy one, you might later forget, and miss your chance at pumpkin spice bliss. This cannot happen, and so we buy.

    When planning your marketing calendar, don’t neglect the idea of ‘limited time offers’ or other seasonal specials to create a sense of urgency to buy from you. Every business, from retail to restaurants to service providers, can offer a short-term special.

  2. Create an experience and go for hype.

    A Pumpkin Spice Latte isn’t just any cup of flavored coffee. It’s a time machine that transports you to your absolute best memories of fall — the apple orchard you visited as a kid, making and running through leaf piles, backyard fire pit sessions with the fam. Don’t believe me? Then I suggest you visit Twitter or Instagram and enter #PSL as your search term. You’ll find thousands of pictures of Pumpkin Spice Latte fans sharing their favorite memories of fall while enjoying this “magical” cup of coffee.

    Emotionally connecting with your audience is another particularly effective marketing strategy. Aim to tap into the human side of your company and your customers’ emotions to more quickly sell your product or promote your service. Additionally, build your social media following so that you can utilize it to launch your campaigns and engage with customers as Starbucks does. Connecting with followers adds to the customer experience, and can set you apart from your competition.

  3. Give ‘em what they want.

    In 2014, Starbucks faced harsh criticism when it was revealed that they failed to include one key ingredient in their Pumpkin Spice Lattes: pumpkin. The ingredients and flavor were all artificial, and fans lashed out. Starbucks listened to those angered fans and changed its recipe. Today, PSL ingredients include real pumpkin puree.

    What’s the lesson? Listen to your customers. When they’re complaining, don’t get defensive. Respond calmly and quickly, making changes to your products and services to meet the needs and desires of your clients.

Enjoy the fall this year and take in a few pumpkin spice treats if you like. They haven’t always been here, but they are here to stay. We can thank (and copy) a particularly effective marketing strategy for that.

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