Who was your favorite Spice Girl?
If you answered “Pumpkin,” you don’t recall the Spice Girls very accurately. There was no Pumpkin Spice in that group.
Such a response would, however, speak to the cultural prevalence of pumpkin spice flavoring in consumer products. It’s a feature that grows year after year, always appearing — in an increasing number of goods — in autumn. Begat in large part by the introduction of the Pumpkin Spice Latte by Starbucks in 2003, the changing of the color of leaves in nature now brings with it a deluge of food and beverage items — as well as non-edibles such as fragrances and lotions — instilled with the essence of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and clove.
Pumpkin itself is, of course, often included in the ingredients of the zest that these products emit — though it bears noting that actual pumpkin had not been an element of the coffee beverage that started it all until this year.
[bctt tweet="In 2014, pumpkin-flavored products accounted for $361 million in sales."]
Consumer complaints about the legitimacy of the name aside, the Pumpkin Spice Latte (or “PSL” to the devoted) has been an absolute monolith for Starbucks, which was already selling more than 20 million units of the item per year at the time of the beverage’s 10-year anniversary. That amounts to north of $80 million in annual revenue for a seasonal product, a number that has inspired retailers from all areas to get in on the pumpkin spice action, with equally impressive results: Nielsen reports that last year, pumpkin-flavored products were purchased by 37 percent of U.S. consumers and accounted for $361 million in sales.
[bctt tweet="In 2013, Starbucks was selling about 20 million #PSLs per year, for roughly $80 million in annual revenue."]
The lesson is clear: When fall rolls around, whatever products a retailer can get to carry a whiff of pumpkin spice, those products are very likely to sell at a high rate.
That being said, not every consumer-facing business can go injecting the essence of the most common Cucurbita pepo cultivar into all of their items willy-nilly — particularly if they don’t sell food. Put it in a candle, sure, but people might be less inclined to purchase, say, pumpkin spice pants or electronics.
A more valuable takeaway for retailers of all (ahem) flavors would be to focus not on what is at the core of the annual sales phenomenon that Starbucks set off 12 years ago, but rather on why the PSL — and the still-growing veritable landslide of pumpkin-infused product offerings with which other companies followed suit — are such a hit with consumers, from a marketing perspective.
“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” hasn’t aired on TV annually for 48 straight years and counting because ABC (the current network to hold broadcast rights to the special) owes some kind of a blood oath to the Charles Schulz estate — it airs because people watch it, and that equates to advertising dollars.
Whether adult consumers watch the Charlie Brown special (any of the seasonal specials, in fact) because it instills in them pleasant memories of holidays past and/or they want to engage their own children in a continued tradition, appealing to consumers’ nostalgia is an effective business model — just ask any retailer that participated in Force Friday earlier this month.
For a large swath of consumers, the olfactory sensation that pumpkin spice anything initiates emotionally transports them to autumns gone by, evoking happy recollections of times spent with family and friends. People will gladly spend money on any item that provides them with a link to their personal histories: If a retailer can offer a product that consumers positively associate with what once was, those consumers will keep coming back to buy it.
A significant portion of the audience for Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte consists of those who purchase the item largely because they can’t get it year round. The basic human instinct to want what you can’t always have presents a built-in marketing opportunity for retailers.
Seasons, of course, provide an inherent framework for limited availability (as is the case with the PSL), but retailers of any product type need not hold fast to Earth’s revolution around the sun in such pursuits. They can make their own clock with respect to presenting when and why a particular item is being offered for sale — but the key is to let consumers know that there is a limited window with a hard stop date.
Offering a product under the auspices that “it won’t be around after [X date]” attracts a consumer element beyond those who purely hold an interest in the product itself, carrying over to those who are driven to purchase by the product’s scarcity.
Part and parcel with Starbucks’ success in limiting the availability of the Pumpkin Spice Latte (and related seasonal offerings) is the work that the company does in getting the word out about it — both via traditional advertising platforms and, perhaps more importantly, social media.
“Being a part of something,” even when applied to the purchase of a retail product, is a social experience for the consumer. By utilizing social messaging as a jumping-off point to compel consumers to engage in independent conversations on related platforms, retailers can highlight the “experience” aspect of a particular product offering and generate consumer buzz around it — a particularly essential outcome prior to and in the early days of a product’s release.
If consumers aren’t effectively made aware that they might be missing out on something, it’s really only the retailer that ends up missing out (on sales).
A retailer that finds initial consumer-engagement success in following Starbucks’ model with respect to the Pumpkin Spice Latte would be wise to remember that sales of a limited-offering product — structured seasonally or otherwise — are not necessarily destined to repeat themselves. The key focal points of Nostalgia, Limited Availability and Build-Up need to be nurtured and adjusted accordingly year-round — especially during the periods when the product is not available. Otherwise, the company runs the risk of the consumer losing interest in its product.
Who knows? If the Spice Girls had a “Pumpkin Spice,” they might still be going strong today.