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Falling into Autumn with Pumpkin Spice and Everything Nice

Starbucks forever changed fall branding in 2003 when the coffee-chain giant first introduced its Pumpkin Spice Latte—or PSL, as it’s now known to fans. According to Matt Johnson, an author who specializes in the psychology of marketing, this beverage instantly became “the most successful seasonal drink of all time.” So what’s the history of the beloved brew and how did it become synonymous with autumn for countless brands? We dive in to find out.  

History in the Making
Ad Age estimates that upwards of $500 million is poured into pumpkin-spice-flavored items each year in the United States alone. Starbucks also sells its PSL in Canada, Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean and Asian-Pacific markets. Other countries likewise take part in their own annual pumpkin craze. In England, for example, British fashion company Pour Moi recently hired “pumpkin spice latte taste testers” to visit major coffee chains and sample products, then write reviews and assign ratings. “With so many places offering a pumpkin spice latte or similar seasonal drinks, it can be hard to decipher the good from the bad,” said Pour Moi. Fun fact: Starbucks’s PSL didn’t contain real pumpkin until 2015, when it was added in response to consumer demand. The PSL’s popularity can be attributed in part to powerful feelings of nostalgia evoked through the seemingly simple combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger flavors. “We don’t taste objectively—we almost hallucinate with our taste buds,” said Johnson. Associations made in our brains between this flavor and the autumn season may evoke warm feelings of home and family, images of fires and falling leaves, and memories of cozy holidays like Thanksgiving. Capitalizing on the “neuroscience of taste” is a powerful way for marketers to tap into the positive sensations we all wish to re-experience each fall.

Autumn in August
Starbucks has sold over 500 million units of its Pumpkin Spice Latte in the nearly 20 years since it was first introduced, so it’s perhaps not surprising that other brands were quick to jump on the aroma bandwagon. In fact, pumpkin-flavored grocery products generated $511 million in sales in 2019, up 4.7% from the previous year. Some of last year’s pumpkin offerings included Philadelphia Pumpkin Spice Cream Cheese, Cup Noodles Pumpkin Spice—a limited-edition item the company returned for a second round this year—the Pumpkin Smash Smoothie from Jamba Juice and multiple beers, including Pumpkin Spiced Latte Ale from Harpoon Brewery.

In addition to being ubiquitous, pumpkin-flavored offerings are also debuting earlier each year. That’s partly driven by demand from millennial and Gen Z consumers, with one in four reporting they want the fall specialty to make an August arrival. So brands are responding to consumer demand. 7-Eleven was the first to bring back both its pumpkin spice latte and coffee offerings on August 5—weeks ahead of September 22, the first official day of fall. “Channel your flannel,” pitched the convenience-store chain, even as temperatures across the country soared to record highs. Krispy Kreme followed on August 8, releasing their Pumpkin Spice Collection that includes eight flavored beverages and donuts. “Sure, pumpkin spice is generally associated with fall, but true fans of the flavor will agree that August is close enough,” said Dave Skena, Krispy Kreme’s Global Chief Brand Officer. Dunkin’ Donuts launched its offerings on August 17, two days earlier than last year, while Caribou Coffee started its pumpkin spice season at the end of August—and partly apologized for that delay. “We feel good about our launch date, even though I personally know some people who would like it to start sooner,” said Gretchen Hashemi-Rad, beverage category manager. Starbucks, meanwhile, waited until September to bring back its OG beverage, proving that anticipation can sometimes make the heart grow fonder.

Brands Buy In
This year, a new crop of brands are capitalizing on the pumpkin-spice craze in increasingly creative ways. Goldfish snack crackers paired with Dunkin’ Donuts for the first time to debut their limited-edition Goldfish Dunkin’ Pumpkin Spice Grahams that hit shelves September 1, following a TikTok activation that let consumers buy the snack on the social platform ahead of its in-store rollout. Oreo’s pumpkin-spice flavored cookie was discontinued for five years before making its August 15 comeback, accompanied by an online community page dedicated solely to conversation about the product. In other sweet news, Cheerios and Kellogg’s Special K put out pumpkin-flavored cereals, while Jell-O released a pudding that tastes like pumpkin pie filling. Those looking for something harder might try Mother Pumpkin Ale or Big Mother Pumpkin, two seasonal brews released by New York-based craft brewing company Blue Point. And perhaps in the ultimate example of seasonal employment, website FinanceBuzz announced its intention to hire a taste-tester for all pumpkin-spice creations made at Trader Joe’s. From ravioli to samosas to waffles to pumpkin-spiced ginger brew, this gourd guru will help decide which foods should go to market and which should be skipped. Happy fall, all!