The Pumpkin Spice Phenomenon

The Pumpkin Spice Phenomenon

October 27, 20222 min read

It’s time to embrace it: We’re in peak fall mode. But other than Instagram photos of crimson foliage and shearling boots, how does mainstream society observe the season? Two words: pumpkin spice.

AdAge reports that the seasonal flavor is now a $500 million annual industry. So, what gives?

"Seasonal products or limited-time offerings have a long history in marketing," says Tyler Milfeld, assistant professor at the Villanova School of Business. "These products are designed to connect to a broader cultural context."

And pumpkin spice is undoubtedly a part of Western fall culture. Candles, snacks, drinks, eye shadow palettes, dog treats… the list goes on. But what drives consumer interest? Is it the packaging? The taste? The coziness factor?

"Because of their seasonal or limited-time nature, products like these inspire consumer urgency, brand connection and word-of-mouth, three cornerstone marketing objectives," says Milfeld. "For example, candy companies have a long affiliation with the holidays through seasonal packages and flavors."

But let’s be honest, there’s no pumpkin spice without Starbucks.

"Starbucks' pumpkin spice latte is a terrific example of an in-season tie-in. Starbucks has leveraged consumer demand for the product by creating a buzz around the latte’s debut," says Milfeld. "It's interesting how pumpkin spice latte fans made videos and posted on social media about the launch date! In this way, product marketing is delivered through influencers, social media, and popular press. This year's product debuted in late August, allowing the brand a long run-up to the peak period."

And it’s no coincidence that we see seasonally branded items popping up the most in grocery stores and restaurants.

"Food products are ideal for seasonal offerings because certain ingredients enjoy strong associations with certain times. For instance, consumers associate cranberry with the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons," Milfeld says.

"These products become cultural touchstones because they connect to a specific flavor, ingredient, recipe or color associated with the season and become an experience—for example, picking up a peppermint milkshake on the way home from holiday shopping or getting a 12-pack of cranberry splash for an extended family gathering. Marketers reinforce these usage occasions to strengthen the association for subsequent seasons. The product then becomes a tradition itself and a seasonal icon."

The anticipation of a product's return becomes a marketing event. Thus, the holiday and consumer product become inextricably entwined. So, here's to the "basic" PSL lovers amongst us. Enjoy your festive treat without that extra side of embarrassment. After all, we're just celebrating the season.

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