The Inside History of Pumpkin Spice Lattes
"It's not even that good!" cries out the troubled protagonist in "Pumpkin Spice: Official Movie Trailer." He has a right to be concerned — every September the so-called "Pumpkin Spice" invasion starts with our lattes before invading bagels, doughnuts, beer, and even our Twitter timelines. As the mock Pumpkin Spice movie tagline claims, "It happens every Fall. The world is plagued by a substance so scrumptious, so seasonal, so sinister, no one can escape it."
Even in our everyday real lives, the obsession cannot be ignored or taken lightly. Deemed, "the opiate of the masses" by a clever tweeter, the shortage of the seasonal syrup at a Manhattan Starbucks even made the front page of the Wall Street Journal last October. Manhattan Starbucks employees, faced with the backlash of angry customers who could not satisfy their Pumpkin Spice Latte fix, opened a company-wide dialogue over shortages that arise from infrequent and insufficient deliveries to prevent such an incident from occurring again this fall.
Now, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the flavor, it is estimated that over 200 million Pumpkin Spice Lattes have been bought and savored. With such enthusiasm in the market, the question arises: why limit the PSL profit potential to just autumn?
Well, to be honest, Starbucks did not foresee how popular pumpkin spice would become. In fact, it was predicted as quite the opposite. The Pumpkin Spice Project was almost abandoned; developers considered the flavor nothing special compared to work on other special editions such as cinnamon spice and chocolate.
Virtually disappearing after its short — albeit extensive — reign of autumn, the Pumpkin Spice obsession can be attributed purely to its associations with fall (and the fact that it is, legitimately, tasty). Starbucks has recognized this and plays on the addiction as a marketing strategy. For example, the days leading up to the annual PSL release, Starbucks conducts a Twitter countdown for anxious Pumpkin Spice fans. The delivery of the first Pumpkin Spice shipment is cause for a company-wide celebration. Starbucks even launched a haiku contest, allowing customers to express their love of Pumpkin Spice. A top entry was:
"I love pumpkin Spice.
Do not even need a cup.
Connect the I.V."
After dabbling a bit in pumpkin psychology, it is clear how great of a job Starbucks has done in associating the flavor with fall. The quintessential autumn afternoon consists of walking on dry leaves through a park and conversing with a friend. That schema now includes doing so with a PSL in hand. This is what I would like to call the "Eggnog Paradox." Both are short yet inevitably reccurring flavor fads that can attribute their success to pop-culture tradition and synesthesia. Certain smells and tastes have the ability to bring us back to a certain mood, and now Pumpkin Spice has grown mainstream enough to have this effect, just as it was designed to. For example, while developers were working on the flavor they decorated their Research & Development lab with Thanksgiving decorations, wore sweaters, and brought in homemade pies for lunch breaks. Even though it was only spring, they wanted to incorporate the autumn mood as they worked to create the all-encompassing taste of fall.
The majority of their final product was cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove. There is no trace of pumpkin in the recipe at all, further proving how putting "pumpkin" in the name just leads us to associate it with fall. Pumpkin, specifically in Pumpkin Pie, was a symbol of brotherhood for Puritans and, despite historical uncertainty, is commonly thought of as signifying peace and unity at the First Thanksgiving.
Yet those who are skeptical — or perhaps even fearful — of this coffee conspiracy and tyranny of taste will find relief once it's December and Peppermint Mocha takes over. The Pumpkin Spice obsession is not as simple as it seems, but as marketing trends go, it's pretty great.