Explaining the Pumpkin Spice Latte Craze

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver runs a segment every fall called “IT’S PUMPKIN SPICE LATTE SEASON! YEAH!!!!!”, showing clips of news anchors ushering in the beverage interspersed with a voice on the show yelling things like, “Soon All of Existence Shall Be Cradled In The Fragrant Pumpkin Arms Of the Spice!”

It’s hysterical and not quite hyperbole. 

Right now, it’s pumpkin everything season from candles, gourds, cereal, pies, ice cream, pasta, salsa, and beer. 

But no pumpkin item or product can touch the popularity of pumpkin spice latte or PSL. What started not too long ago as a novelty now dominates the coffee culture, and the coveted beverage is trotted out earlier and earlier each year. 

Why the craze? We explain below. 

When did it Become so Popular?

Starbucks introduced the flavor in 2003, piloting it at 100 stores in the U.S. and Canada.  

“A number of us thought it was a beverage so dominated by a flavor other than coffee that it didn’t put Starbucks’ coffee in the best light,” said the late Tim Kern, a former Starbucks executive in a Yahoo! interview from 2013.

PSL instantly started breaking company records and was rolled out in all stores the following year. But it truly became a cultural sensation in the early to mid-‘10s. Naturally, other companies jumped on the bandwagon, including Dunkin, McDonald’s, Tim Horton’s, Peet’s, and so on. 

Focusing just on Starbucks, data from 2019 showed that PSL was available in 50 countries, and an estimated 424 million drinks had been sold, bringing in approximately $1.4 billion. The Twitter account of the brand had 100,000 followers, and 1.7 million posts on Instagram had tagged the drink.

This year, Starbucks released PSL on August 24, closer to the dog days of summer than the start of fall. 

Social Media

In between shouting matches over whatever, people love posting pictures of food and drink on social media. It’s fair to say that without the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, PSL wouldn’t be the juggernaut that it is today. 

The timing could not have been better because these social media channels began taking off as people were learning about PSL through word of mouth. Soon everyone began posting selfies with the drink, and according to Fast Company, Starbucks sold about 200 million PSLs, then doubled it over the next five years, while strategically expanding it around the globe.

Nostalgia 

Let’s turn to academia for this explanation. 

The same Fast Company article interviewed Kelly Haws, a Vanderbilt marketing professor who specializes in consumers’ food decision-making, who said, “The flavor brings back positive memories for people around family, the holidays, and the fall. 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.” 

Pumpkin spice latte is here to stay, and if you haven’t yet, you better get used to it.  Speaking of pumpkin and fall treats (SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT), we’ve got quite a lineup, including our Hello Halloween and Jack of all Treats gift baskets.

 
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