Pumpkin-flavored foodstuffs are being hyped earlier than many have deemed acceptable this year. Pumpkin-enhanced yogurts and Oreos emerged in early August, well ahead of the unofficial start of fall. And then, of course, there’s the return of the drink that started it all: the pumpkin spice latte.
Despite griping on the Internet about the arrival of the PSL–since it basically signals the death knell for summer–Starbucks insists that the cult beverage has not arrived any earlier than normal. “This is consistent with how we have offered PSL over the past four years,” Megan Adams, a Starbucks spokesperson, told Fast Company. The consistency in timing, in fact, goes farther back than that. Since its inception in 2003, Starbucks has always officially started selling the drink at the beginning of its fall retail season, which starts the day after Labor Day. This year, the PSL goes on sale on September 2nd.
That said, the promotional push and regional availability of the drink is actually starting earlier in the summer. In each of the past four years, Starbucks has offered the PSL’s biggest fans opportunities via social media to get the drink early. And contrary to Adams’s statement, that timeline has shifted. In 2011, the company held a competition on Facebook from August 22-26 where PSL fans could rally to bring the drink to their towns ahead of the official retail season; winners were rewarded with PSLs on August 30. This year, a much more elaborate challenge began on the 20th. The winners could “unlock” the drink as early as the 26th.
In addition, the hype machine has gotten louder. From a very thorough feature article about the PSL in the Seattle Met:
Each year brings an increasingly elaborate rollout plan, involving hashtags and secret codes that “unlock” the PSL at a particular store and Facebook contests where fans vie to have the latte land in their city a week earlier than the national debut. To follow #PSL on Twitter or Instagram this time of year is to be flooded with images of those Starbucks cups, brandished, hoisted, or artfully arranged to showcase that familiar acronym scrawled on the side in black. And then, of course, there are the commercials: the one with the overzealous PSL fan air drumming with a pair of green venti straws; or the series featuring a fully staged–and completely fake–Pumpkin Spice Days festival in a small, bucolic town, complete with cinnamon-stick-twirling contests and a Miss Pumpkin Spice pageant.
So you’re not exactly crazy for thinking all things pumpkin have started creeping into the summer. The PSL is incredibly popular–customers have purchased more than 200 million of the nutmeg-tinged beverages, making it the best-selling seasonal drink in Starbucks history–and Starbucks is capitalizing on that with increasingly aggressive marketing campaigns.
But all of this begs the question: Why can’t we get the pumpkin spice latte all year round? There’s demand. Its fans wait for the PSL all year long, tweeting and Facebooking about its impending return. There is no pumpkin in the saccharine drink, and ergo no reason Starbucks couldn’t offer the cult beverage to its adoring fans. Plus, this is America, where most foods are available year-round, environment or price be damned.
But Starbucks stands by the seasonal nature of the drink. “It is the signal of fall for customers,” Adams said. “The spicy essence–that signals fall has arrived for them.”
Forget the argument that people crave certain flavors certain times of year, and a Frappuccino is a more reasonable summer choice than a hot cinnamon drink. People would not and do not object to an iced-PSL, or a pumpkin spice frap during warmer months. Chilled pumpkin drinks exist on the “secret” Starbucks menu.
Really, PSL-heads can only get their beloved drink during certain months because of push marketing. Seasonal or limited availability of any good “pushes consumers into a store,” according to Marianne Bickle, director for the Center of Retail at the University of South Carolina. The time limit gets people to run to the local Starbucks and buy a PSL–or 20–before it’s too late. Ingeniously, PSL season is like any other made-up holiday: It gives people a reason to shop.
At the same time, Starbucks knows that a certain set of super-fans will buy PSL all the time, which is why the PSL isn’t strictly as seasonal as the cafe giant claims. As adamant as Starbucks is about the beginning of PSL season, it doesn’t have a hard stop on when it ends.
Because there is no such thing as PSL season, Starbucks can make PSL season start and end whenever it wants. It just has to retain the illusion of limited availability. The very idea of PSL “coming early” only helps Starbucks maintain the farce of seasonal beverages, while also drawing super-fans into stores a few days earlier.