For podcaster and comedian Cait Raft, the official start of fall is July 5. “Because we live in hell, climate change has made summer so hot, and mentally getting into a fall state of mind is a coping mechanism,” says the co-host of the daily Twitch morning talk show JackAM.
If it’s 80 degrees outside and all you want to wear is a sweater and scarf, you can relate. Autumn may not officially begin until September 22, but we all know when it really starts—the day you order that first pumpkin spice anything.
It’s fall https://t.co/R028Irg9cv
— Cait Raft⚠️(they/them)⚠️ (@caitraft) August 16, 2021
In the 18 years since Starbucks first introduced its now iconic Pumpkin Spice Latte, the flavor has become a marketing juggernaut for everything from rival coffee chains like Dunkin, Tim Horton’s, and Peet’s, to seasonal booze and beer, to Dairy Queen and Panera, to even Kraft Dinner and Cup of Noodles. Starbucks has credited the PSL with strong earnings, and in 2018, customers guzzled $110 million worth of PSLs—though it barely made up 1% of Starbucks’ annual coffee sales that year. Starbucks declined to speak on record for this story.
This week Starbuck’s announced the return of the PSL, and it was actually news that it fell a day earlier than last year, on August 24. (Dunkin announced its own pumpkin spiced lineup on August 18.) With so many product options and brands scrambling on the bandwagon, and the definitive fall flavor now hitting more than a month before sweater season even begins, have we finally hit peak pumpkin spice? More likely we’re nowhere near that, as long as PSL is still moving hundreds of millions in sales and billions of media impressions for attention-starved brands.
It was not preordained. Back in 2003 when Starbucks first decided to combine the seasonal pie spices and coffee, it was just an idea to replicate the success of the limited-edition winter holiday drinks Peppermint Mocha and Eggnog Latte for another season. First tested in late 2002 at about 100 stores in Vancouver and Washington D.C., it was an instant hit. In 2013, Starbucks’ director of espresso Americas Peter Dukes told The Daily Meal, “We couldn’t keep up initially.”
Then social media arrived and gave everyone the ability to post stylized selfies with their favorite coffee treat. In its first decade, Starbucks sold about 200 million PSLs, then doubled it over the next five years, all the while strategically expanding it around the globe.
As early as it feels, Starbucks isn’t actually creeping the release date back by much, as it has long pegged its release to the last Tuesday in August. This year that’s August 31, so the brand pushed the release date to create a week-long buffer before September. Darren Siefer, a food and beverage industry analyst with The NPD Group, says the extra week before September makes sense as the notion of fall typically kicks off with back-to-school.
“We’re seeing back to school being a big deal again, whereas last year people were very much staying more at home,” says Seifer. “College campuses are seeing more of a return, as well as high school students, and people think of that as the start of fall, so it’s another way to jump in on the back-to-school promotions.”
Kelly Haws, a Vanderbilt marketing professor who specializes in consumers’ food decision-making, says there’s also a nostalgia factor at play. “The flavor brings back positive memories for people around family, the holidays, and the fall,” says Haws. “It’s also typically coupled with something sweet and fattening, and we have an innate need and desire for sugar and fat, and many of these pumpkin spice products have a lot of both.” (A 16-ounce Starbucks PSL has 390 calories and 14 grams of fat.) Haws echoes the comedian Raft: “It also just feels like something fun and happy to think about when the news is full of not very pleasant things.”
Research suggests that the popularity of pumpkin spice products is not slowing down at all. Food trend research firm Tastewise told Fast Company that there was a 45% increase in consumer interest in pumpkin spice products between October 2019 and October 2020, while menu mentions for the same period were up 221% nationwide, as restaurants leaned on the trend to keep interest high during the pandemic.
However, The NPD Group’s Seifer says that its own research found that at least for one major coffee chain, pumpkin spice wasn’t winning over new customers. “We looked at a major gourmet coffee chain last year, and the vast majority of those who purchased a pumpkin spice latte were consumers of that chain to begin with,” says Seifer. “But what it did do is increase check size, making it about $2.77 higher when they purchased a pumpkin spice latte.” That would explain the marketing hype behind PSL Season beginning to rival back-to-school promotions, as brands aim to get people back through their doors with a seasonal offering.
The success of the PSL has led to a cottage industry of fall flavoring, reflected this year by things like Dunkin’s “Apple Cranberry Refresher” and Panera’s Cinnamon Crunch Latte. Starbucks expanded its pumpkin spice roster in 2019 with Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew, and this year is diversifying its fall flavor line-up with the Apple Crisp Macchiato. Which prompts a question: Will the PSL be replaced?
Haws says that as with almost any marketing decision, if everyone is doing it, the overall effectiveness is diminished. “It’s a similar dynamic to how we see holiday sales pushing earlier and earlier, and the concept can become diluted,” says Haws. “In order to be effective it still needs to be something that is desirable. Dunkin and Starbucks’ versions of pumpkin spice are delicious, and there’s a reason they’re popular. Cup of Noodles may be taking it too far. It’ll get some attention and laughs, but it’s not built for longevity or [to be] a big seller.”
The truth is, it would take a near miracle to kick the PSL off its throne at Starbucks. While Starbucks has no plans to make the PSL a permanent menu fixture, according to a recent Morning Consult survey, 40% of Americans would welcome pumpkin spice all year-round. Raft, for one, is 100% on board. “We should normalize pumpkin spice so that it’s here all the time,” says Raft. “That’s maybe what we need as a culture, to just be honest with ourselves and say we want it all year.”