How Pumpkin Spice Became A Marketing Superstar

Close your eyes and think back for a moment. 10 years ago, how did you recognize the shift in seasons? What initially signaled to you that summer or fall had arrived? The obvious answer is that you looked outside and saw whether the sun was shining or the leaves turned color.

Welcome to the new world where brands announce and signify if a season is here, through your virtual windows. Yes, summer now announces its arrival with iced coffee drinks and popsicle sticks going on sale, and the fall season announces its arrival through the famed pumpkin-spiced drinks and condiments. 

Out of these two popular products, one has become a national phenomenon and no prize for guessing, it is Pumpkin Spice everything. 

This blog traces the journey of a humble household spice to the sales and marketing phenomenon that has saved countless food and beverage establishments over the last couple of years. 

You would be amazed to see how your favorite drink of the season came to be! 

Let’s dive right in. 

The Origin of Pumpkin Spice and Pumpkin Spice Lattes 

From the drink that almost wasn’t to a household name all over the world, what brought pumpkin spice from Thanksgiving kitchens to coffee shops?

To understand this, we have to rewind the clocks a little and understand how pumpkin spice itself came into existence. 

Pumpkin pie is a thing of beauty and a nostalgia-filled treat that every American looks forward to when the fall season arrives. In the 1930s, spice manufacturers condensed the long list of spices that traditionally went into the pie into a single blend, simplifying things for bakers. This blend remains an integral part of American and Canadian households. 

So when Starbucks was looking for a new seasonal drink, they brought this spice mix also into the mix. The humble pumpkin spice had to compete with crowd favorites like hot chocolate and espresso. And while it started as something the team did not have a lot of confidence in, it has now become their flagship offering. 

And that is how your favorite Pumpkin Spice Latte came to be in 2003.  Interestingly, pumpkin itself did not even factor into the blend until 2015

What happened after 2003 is history, as they say. Today, the drink, or more specifically, the spice – has an economy named after it. The so-called ‘pumpkin spice economy‘ accounts for annual sales ranging from $300 to $500. And was not solely the result of Starbucks’ trust in the spice. Rather, there has been a combination of overwhelming response from customers and brands alike, all eager to claim a piece of the pie, so to speak. 

While Starbucks debuted the flavor and is still very closely tied to it, the phenomenon of pumpkin spice and the subsequent marketing has gone way beyond the brand. 

Pumpkin Spice Marketing: Beyond Starbucks 

With trends, it is hard to remain exclusive for a longer period of time and that is exactly what has happened to Starbucks. While they are responsible for bringing Pumpkin Spice Latte to the world, it is now the world’s. Yes, the brand has trademarked the “PSL” label but that has not stopped other brands from coming up with their versions with small variations. 

Dunkin Donuts, Seven-Eleven, Krispy Kreme, McDonald’s, and so on have put their own twist on pumpkin spice-associated products. Even Bud Light, which technically has no association with fall or pumpkin spice introduced an exclusive drink called the Pumpkin Spice Seltzer

While not all of these have been a raging success, they have generated substantial sales for the brands by playing on customer’s curiosity. And it is always better to have a moderately successful holiday product than having nothing at all. 

Having a pumpkin spice-related product has definitely helped these brands. While the primary motivation was to compete with Starbucks for footfall, the revenue has also been quite favorable. 

For example, Dunkin Donuts which generally launches its fall offerings a few weeks before Starbucks, saw an 8.4% increase in overall sales in the season. While this is a small number, every penny counts in the post-pandemic food and beverage category, especially when it seems to be recession-proof. 

By the way, did you know that the iconic Pumpkin Spice Latte is turning 20 this year? 

Lessons From the Best Pumpkin Spice Marketing Campaigns From Starbucks and Other Brands 

More than a culinary success, the pumpkin spice economy is a direct result of it being a tremendous marketing success. Therefore, small businesses and marketers can learn a lot of valuable lessons by understanding the history of pumpkin spice and analyzing the factors that made it a huge marketing success.

This section takes a look at some of the best lessons that you can learn from campaigns associated with pumpkin spice. 

Let’s get into it. 

1. Understand your audience and capitalize on consumer sentiment 

Not sure if you know this but Peter Dukes,  who is famously credited with coming up with Pumpkin Spice Lattes was not always sure of the beverage. He knew that chocolate and cinnamon are a hot favorite but Pumpkin spice has just the advantage of being unique. He took a risk anyway and it paid off. 

While that serves as a lesson in experimentation and sticking to your guns, the substantial growth of pumpkin spice-based products has an even bigger message to convey. Once Pumpkin Spice Latte became a thing and grew bigger than they expected it to, Starbucks and the rest of the industry began exploring why. 

This is what they found :

  • PSL and other pumpkin spice products connected with the audience, making them nostalgic with their childhood memories. It was as much as the smell, as it was the taste that cinched the deal. This is why most popular pumpkin spice beverages have an additional dash of the spice for extra happiness. 
  • The drink resonated the most with Millennial consumers and Gen Z who seemed to have made it a mark of their times itself. They do not mind having it even before fall is here

“This probably is something that psychology and economics and marketing classes could be studying for ages,” said Dr. Catherine Franssen of the Science Museum of Virginia.

“Pumpkin spice has the ability to really reach into the center of our memories at a very emotional level,” said Franssen. “At the core of that is sugar. We actually encode the memories of what’s associated with the sugar. For example, the smell of pumpkin spice.”

What is the lesson here? When your hunch pays off, understand why and deliver to your customer’s expectations.

2. Targeted Packaging designs 

The food and beverage industry relies heavily on typical marketing trappings like branding, packaging design, and traditional advertisements to boost their sales. And when you know this, there is no shame in owning up to it just as every brand associated with pumpkin spice products has done. 

We know that pumpkin spice is all about bringing the nostalgia of the fall season for some, while it is a signature drink of the younger generation. Starbucks and other related brands have heavily capitalized on this finding by launching a selection of targeted packaging designs. 

Some popular ones that are hard to miss from August every year include : 

  • Orange coffee sleeves
  • Custom-designed coffee mugs for all products indicating the arrival of the Pumpkin spice season 
  • Quirky packaging designs on donuts and other packaged goods to appeal to the Gen Z and Millennial target audience. 

When it is pumpkin spice season, you know it very clearly. And even if you miss, brands take to social media to debut their packaging designs and remind you that your favorite products are back. 

KIMP Tip: In the above example, notice how the brand incorporates the signature pumpkin spice colors and illustrations to set the mood. 

To customize the packaging for your pumpkin spice products and other seasonal merchandise, get a KIMP Graphics subscription. 

3. Leverage on influencer collaborations 

Celebrity endorsements and influencer collaborations are great for brands, especially when you have to build traction and boost sales for a limited-edition product. Naturally, the idea works well for seasonal products like the pumpkin spice range. 

In a delightful twist of events, Ed Sheeran, the four-time Grammy winner, swapped his stage for a Starbucks counter, becoming the “barista of joy.” As part of his unique promotional campaign for his upcoming album “Autumn Variations,” Sheeran worked a shift at Starbucks ahead of his Seattle concert. 

While launching Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte for his album, Sheeran’s video showcased the singer-songwriter’s interactions with fans and coworkers, captivating a crowd eager for his personalized touch. Each cup he handed out featured a sticker reading “Autumn is coming” and a QR code linked to his album’s preorder page.

This is Ed Sheeran’s way of getting closer to his fans and Starbucks’ way of connecting with new customer segments – a win-win! 

4. Infuse playfulness and personality into your ads 

When you know that brands around you are all going to hop on the trend and introduce their own versions of pumpkin spice products, what can you do to cut through the noise? Break away from traditional marketing norms and get creative with your ads. 

Take the below ad from Buff City for example. 

As you can see from the ad, with the right hint of playfulness and other engaging emotions, you can convert the seemingly “cliched” ideas into memorable ones. This ad shows that brands can capitalize on unexpected creativity, humor, and unconventional tactics to engage and delight audiences across various platforms, from broadcast to social media, while effectively conveying their unique selling points. 

5. Understand FOMO marketing 

FOMO plays a major role in most marketing campaigns, but there are very few who understand the basics of it and play that concept to the fullest. 

FOMO marketing is not just about capturing the audience by hinting to them that they are missing out on something. The right way to do it is to create a product and drive the demand in such a way that everyone else (brands and consumers) experiences FOMO. And then going a step ahead by expanding the market and catering to the people who like the product but do not use it yet due to many reasons. 

The pumpkin spice economy ticks all of these boxes. 

  • Starbucks got the wheel going by introducing PSL into the market and effectively creating FOMO for anyone who had not tasted one or had one on their menu. 
  • Then they understood the FOMO industry and analyzed that some Starbucks customers who did not drink coffee were experiencing FOMO. So instead of letting that market go, they expanded Pumpkin Spice Chai Latte and other cold drinks 
  • Other brands did not stay behind. They knew that they were giving into FOMO but they did it well. They pushed by creating signature dishes and triggering another round of FOMO for the consumers. 

This is a masterclass in FOMO marketing, and everyone must sit up and take notice. 

The biggest lesson here is that even if you give into FOMO as the market demands, do it well and you have nothing to worry about. 

6. Build anticipation through creative teasers 

The pumpkin spice marketing landscape continually evolves, embracing innovative strategies to generate anticipation and excitement. Starbucks’ clever teaser campaign for the launch of their Pumpkin Spice Latte in 2023 perfectly exemplifies this trend. 

Starbucks’ teaser taps into the psychology of anticipation, effectively engaging followers on social media platforms. By combining the allure of a highly anticipated product with the visual charm of pumpkin carving, the campaign not only sparks excitement but also encourages interaction as fans eagerly share and comment on the post.

KIMP Tip: This strategy teaches brands that leveraging innovative and visually engaging teasers can effectively pique interest, generate buzz, and establish a strong emotional connection with consumers. Such campaigns turn product launches into memorable events that customers actively anticipate and participate in.

Want to come up with such static and animated teasers for your brand? Get a KIMP Graphics + Video subscription. 

7. Milk the trend for all you can

Every food and beverage brand now has a pumpkin spice product for the fall on their menus. But there is something to be said for brands that came in later in the game and managed to make the most out of it. 

In the interest of milking the trend-setting product for all you can, we take inspiration from Trader Joe’s. 

The retail giant has successfully created a strong content bank around the fall marketing season by being a one-stop shop for everything around “pumpkin”. From Pumpkin Spice Face Mask to granola and Greek Yogurt, the company sells a whole range of pumpkin spice products. 

They even have a newsletter that features recipes, and pumpkin products, and gives customers a little bit of history and knowledge about the holiday too. 

While they may not be front runners in the pumpkin spice products, they have understood the market and its demands. Thus the newsletter keeps them in the news and makes them a success in the season. 

In fact, in 2022, the company has stepped up their marketing efforts by calling for an expert taste tester to review their products for a $500 gift card and a $1000 cash prize.

8. Use social media contests to boost engagement

Creating a sense of community involvement and excitement is a powerful strategy in the pumpkin spice marketing playbook. The below giveaway from a brand named Treehut is a good example of this. 

This giveaway is more than just a seasonal promotion. It’s an invitation for followers to actively engage with the seasonal sensation. 

The example here shows the strategy of blending the launch announcement with an interactive contest. It clearly demonstrates how brands can leverage social media platforms to create a buzz that extends beyond product consumption. Here the brand harnesses user engagement and encourages them to participate. This is one way for brands to transform their customers into active advocates. Additionally, they can amplify their reach and reinforce the sense of belonging to a larger community.

Add a Dash of Pumpkin Spice to Your Marketing Designs With KIMP

The rise of the pumpkin spice is a lesson in consumer psychology and the power of good designs as well. When you can create something that taps into a customer’s emotions, anything is possible. 

We hope this inspired you to create visually stunning and emotionally engaging designs for your fall marketing campaigns too. 

And if you need a hand, KIMP Graphics and KIMP Video subscriptions are here to make that happen. That too at a flat monthly fee and no hidden charges on revisions or user accounts. 

So spice up your fall marketing with KIMP today. Sign up here!