Ahhh … Fall. The time of year to stop and smell the pumpkin spice.
I can recall a time when, if tasked to associate a fruit with the season, I would have selected the apple, not pumpkin. (And that’s not a technicality; the pumpkin is indeed a fruit.) The fact I grew up in western New York – the nation’s second-largest apple producing state – may have something to do with this.
Apple picking, apple cider doughnuts, and of course homemade apple pie … mmm. Now that’s a fruit that says “fall is here” to me.
So how did pumpkin best the apple to become the fruit of the fall in popular culture? Through a mass-market coffee chain and a potent combination of nostalgia with limited-time-offer marketing strategies.
In 2003, Starbucks first introduced its famous pumpkin spice latte (or PSL) in select stores. This makes the PSL 18 years old, or roughly the same age as the average first-year college student. Its origins make a fascinating case study in product testing and market research. (Interestingly, the PSL did not contain any actual pumpkin until 2015 – around the height of the “pumpkin spice is over” backlash.)
Nostalgia in Marketing
In her 2012 book, Cindy Ott traces the history of the pumpkin in the United States from animal feed staple to nostalgic symbol. She explains that as Americans moved away from farms and into cities, nostalgia for farm life, which pumpkins symbolized, increased. Roadside stands and pumpkin patches sprang up in response. Now nostalgic consumers get a chance to dabble in the feeling of being in nature, without all the messy or inconvenient bits.
We define nostalgia as a sentimental feeling of affection toward the past. Tapping into cultural nostalgia for marketing purposes can be very effective. That’s because nostalgia triggers sense memory associations deep in the individual consumer’s psyche.
Seeing advertising for the PSL likely brings back memories of places, tastes, smells, or even people, that we associate with the drink. That nostalgia drives us to get another. And another. To the tune of somewhere north of an estimated $1 billion to date.
The PSL originally derived its nostalgic powers from associations with the autumnal season. (Spoiler: It’s the warm spices used, like cinnamon and clove, that drive the nostalgic taste associations more than actual pumpkin.) Now, the longer the PSL has been around, the more the latte itself becomes embedded in people’s sense-memories of the season. Many have come to associate the arrival of the drink in stores with the arrival of the season of fall.
It’s worth noting here that what evokes nostalgia will vary across audience segments, and as mentioned, reactions to the PSL have not all been warm fuzzies over the past nearly two decades.
Only Here For a Short Time
In addition to tapping into nostalgia, the PSL is also a classic example of the limited-time-offer appeal in advertising. A limited-time offer focuses on a product’s scarcity or limited quantity to drive sales. People buy because they don’t want to miss out on the experience (aka FOMO).
Scarcity strategies can create a sense of a product being a cult classic, reinforcing the nostalgia factor. See the Great Tickle Me Elmo stampedes of 1996, or the McRib Locator which helps folks locate the elusive McDonald’s sandwich.
Now, the PSL isn’t inspiring any stampedes (that I know of), and all Starbucks outlets carry them for roughly the same period of time. However, once the chain’s supplies are gone, the PSL is off the menu until next year. The required pumpkin spice sauce supplies often run out sometime during the actual pumpkin harvest season.
That’s around the same time consumers turn their attention to peppermint mochas and all things wintery festive. As such, people feel a need to get in early to get their PSL fix for the fall.
Perhaps that’s why the PSL’s yearly debut has gotten earlier, creeping up from mid-September to August 24 in 2021. In case anyone has forgotten, according to the calendar fall does not officially begin until late September. In 2021, that magic date is September 22. That’s a whole month after the “it’s fall y’all” PSL celebrations have kicked off.
Given the market saturation of all things pumpkin spice the PSL has inspired in the last nearly two decades, it’s not a surprise that folks are looking for the next big taste (or scent) of the season. This year, Starbucks has added the Iced Apple Crisp Macchiato, describing it as “a nostalgic autumn pick-me-up.” Perhaps the apple is finally reclaiming its place as (early) fall’s fruit.
And yes, I tried the apple crisp macchiato while writing this post. It’s pretty tasty, but it’s not the PSL … yet.