While Christmas gets all the hype and summer has the beach trips, fall is really everyone’s favorite time of year. Sure, spring can be great — unless, of course, “spring” where you live is best defined by six weeks of chilly rain followed by eight weeks of infernal heat (welcome to Boston). But fall — ah, fall! — almost everywhere is practically perfect in every way. The days aren’t too hot; the nights are not yet too long. Plus, you get to enjoy all the benefits of spending afternoons outside in the sun and evenings inside by a fire. Throw in some choice fall foliage and all-you-can-drink pumpkin spice lattes, and really, there is almost nothing about fall to quibble with.
Well, unless you’re PYMNTS, of course, in which case, you can always find something! Though, in this case, we aren’t so much quibbling as we’re pausing to pay homage to one of retail’s greatest triumphs in the 21st century: pumpkin spice.
Not since sailors circumnavigated the globe in search of saffron has a “spice” ever been quite so beloved of so many people, nor been so entirely associated with a season. In the U.S. (and in much of the developed world), if you say “fall” to people, at least a third will say “pumpkin spice latte” before they say “orange leaves” or “sweaters.” While that may not seem all that remarkable — since you are probably drinking a pumpkin spice latte while you are reading this — a time traveler from the early 2000s might (after appropriately gawking at your enormous smartphone) stop to quickly wonder why exactly it has become desirable to have your coffee taste sort-of-but-not-quite like a pumpkin pie for six weeks out of the year.
The foliage we can’t control and sweaters are a result of temperature drops, but pumpkin pie-flavored coffee doesn’t have quite the same necessary connection to the seasonality, does it? Sure, pumpkins bloom in the fall, but pumpkins have been grown in the United States for hundreds of years. The institution of adding them to coffee is, by all accounts, fairly recent.
So, why do you see red leaves and immediately crave a piping-hot, pumpkin-flavored beverage?
Starbucks, of course.
The Pumpkin Spice Latte: Quick Brew Version
In the year 2000, there were no pumpkin spice lattes to be had — or, at least, not in mainstream circles. You could have found a smattering of pumpkin spice at a grocery store, if you happened to be an early Trader Joe’s adopter, since TJ’s has been riding the pumpkin spice train since the mid-90s, but pumpkin spice really got its star-is-born moment when Starbucks made the pumpkin spice latte (or #PSL, as Twitter abbreviates it) — its signature beverage of the fall.
It wasn’t its first seasonal beverage — the Christmas lattes beat PSL to market by a year — but the Christmas flavors were culturally well-established and already on wide offer by the time Starbucks was custom-fitting them for the red holiday cups. While pumpkin spice as the official flavor of fall may not have been Starbuck’s invention, it has proved to be one of its (not joking at all) greatest innovations.
Flash forward 13 years, and the PSL is Starbucks’ most popular seasonal drink. It pretty much owns Twitter, Instagram and Facebook as its fans and foes temporarily drown out all political debates currently happening everywhere (and, especially this year, who can blame them?). Starbucks has sold an estimated 200 million pumpkin spice lattes, and last year, the PSL alone brought in $200 million in revenue during the six to eight weeks it was on the market.
And that’s not counting the imitators (because there are always imitators if you’ve got a good thing going). As it turns out, everyone, everywhere is making their own version of a pumpkin spice something. Need pumpkin spice-flavored vodka? Market’s got you covered. Want to eat pumpkin spice-flavored hummus? Gross. Also possible. But gross.
Introduced with little fanfare and carried on the wings of customer adoration, 13 years later, pumpkin spice is just a part of fall — all because Starbucks unobtrusively rolled it out as a seasonal drink all those years ago.
The Mobile Commerce Lesson
Come on, you didn’t really think you were just going to get to learn the history of pumpkin spice and call it a weekend, did you? There is, as always, a mobile moral to the story.
Starbucks didn’t roll out the beverage that would reshape the nation’s fall flavor pallet; it just rolled out a new drink that did something very special. It turned a treat — buying yourself a latte — into an extra-special little experience, celebrating the fall, that you could only enjoy for a limited time.
Tying a limited-time offer to a season or a holiday associated with indulgence ratchets up excitement for the product, too, according to Dr. Brian Wansink of Cornell University’s Food & Brand Lab. And it was just enough to give customers a treat, with a little something extra that kept them coming back because it was an experience (at the time) unique to Starbucks.
Even when the benefit starts popping up elsewhere, Starbucks already has the nostalgia and the muscle memory advantage. Fall is about pumpkin spice in general, but about Starbucks, and #PSL, specifically.
Starbucks didn’t go after mobile with the claim it was going to rewrite the payments rails any more than it started selling the PSL to change the way the world sees the fall. It just did what it did with the pumpkin spice latte. It took something neat and a treat — paying by phone in an easy, cool-looking way — and paired it up with a little something extra — in mobile’s case, a rewards program that bought customers an extra cup of coffee because they visit often.
And because all things tie back, those rewards points bought a lot of pumpkin spice lattes for regular customers who couldn’t quite justify drinking them daily for caloric or cost reasons but are happy to take one as a reward for drinking a much more sensible skim latte every other day.
Starbucks gets — and proves, over and over — that happy customers are loyal customers, and while there are lots of ways to make customers happy, the real trick is actually finding that little something extra — #PSL #Fall #Starbucks — that makes them associate how very happy they are with your brand in particular.