How Pumpkin Spice Became A Marketing Superstar

Close your eyes and think back for a second. Say 10 years ago, how did you know that a season had changed? What was the first sign that summer or fall was here? The obvious answer is that you stepped outside and noticed whether it was super hot or crisp and cool.

And then over time something interesting started happening. Brands started taking it upon themselves to announce and signify when a new season was starting. And specifically brands in the food and beverage space. Yes, summer’s arrival is now announced with iced coffees and specialty lemonades, and the famed pumpkin spiced drinks and condiments announce the arrival of Fall. 

Pumpkin spice in particular has become a unique marketing phenomenon. These days it seems like there’s pumpkin spice in just about everything. 

This blog traces the journey of a humble household spice to the sales and marketing phenomena 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 origins 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 kitchens around Thanksgiving 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 many Americans looks forward to when the fall season comes around. In the 1930s, spice manufacturers substituted the long list of spices that went into the pie into just one blend that made things easier for bakers This blend is still an integral part of households across North America in particular. 

So when Starbucks wanted a new seasonal drink, they incorporated this beloved spice mix. And the humble Pumpkin Spice had to compete with longstanding crowd favorites like hot chocolate and espresso. While it started out as something the team did not have a lot of confidence in, it is one of their flagship products today. 

That is how your favorite Pumpkin Spice Latte came to be in 2003 – a combination of espresso and pumpkin spice. Interestingly pumpkin wasn’t even a part of the ingredient list until 2015. But most of us wouldn’t have guessed that with all that pumpkin-themed marketing.

What happened after 2003 is history, as they say. Today, the drink or more specifically the spice has an economy named after it. The pumpkin spice economy accounts for over $300 to $500 annual sales. And that did not become possible with just Starbucks’ trust in the spice. There has been a mix of overwhelming response for everything related to Pumpkin Spice from customers and brands jumping in to take a share 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 marketing that follows 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 the Pumpkin Spice Latte to the world, it is now the world’s. Yes, the brand has trademarked the PSL 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 the pumpkin spice-associated products. Even Bud Light, which technically has no association with fall or pumpkin spice in particular 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 have nothing at all. 

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

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

The Pumpkin Spice Latte has become a cultural harbinger of the fall and a boon for Starbucks — one that’s likely to withstand penny-pinching brought on by inflation, says Bruce Clark, an associate professor of marketing at Northeastern University. 

What some analysts reference as a “pumpkin-spice economy” generates between $350 and $500 million in annual sales, Clark said. That includes pumpkin-flavored coffee from Starbucks and other coffee shops, baked goods, alcoholic drinks, and even pumpkin-spice-flavored chicken sausage. ?

Pumpkin Spice: Lessons from the best Fall Marketing campaigns 

More than a culinary success, the Pumpkin Spice economy is a direct result of it being a tremendous marketing success. 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 Pumpkin Spice and the associated campaigns. 

Let’s get into it. 

1. Understand your audience and capitalize on consumer sentiment 

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 had the advantage of being unique. He took a risk and it paid off. 

While that is a lesson in experimentation and sticking to your guns, the immense growth of Pumpkin Spice-based products has an even bigger one. Once Pumpkin Spice Lattes became a thing and grew bigger than expected, Starbucks and the rest of the industry dove into knowing why. 

This is what they found :

  • PSL and other pumpkin spice products connected with the audience, making them feel nostalgic about their childhood memories. It was as much as the smell, as it was the taste  that cinched the deal. This is why the drinks 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 customers’ expectations. Do not let a popular product fizzle out. 

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 taking advantage of it just as every brand associated with pumpkin spice products has done. It might seem cheesy or even a little tacky at times – but engagement and sales don’t lie.

We know that Pumpkin Spice is all about bringing the nostalgia of the fall season for some. And for others, it is a much-coveted signature drink. 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 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 forget, brands take to social media to debut their packaging designs and remind you that your favorite products are back. And that they’ll only be around for a limited time.

Kimp Tip: Can you see how the announcement from Starbucks touches all the right notes by referencing Fall, pumpkin, and their product as well? This is what we mean when we talk about engaging designs. Take a cue from the best and create a topically relevant, but engaging fall campaign, for your business too. 

Need a hand with your designs? Connect with our Kimp Graphics and Kimp Video teams to kick start your fall campaigns! 

3. Own your IP in holiday marketing 

Not every brand is fortunate enough to create something that others want to copy. It happens after a million misses and is incredibly rare to come by. So if it happens for your business, hold on tight and make sure that no one ever forgets who was here first. And that is one of the biggest takeaways from the Pumpkin Spice success story. 

Starbucks brought this flavor to the world but the rest of the brands were not far behind. It would have been incredibly easy for Starbucks to become one in the crowd and not stand out as it does currently. 

One of the main reasons for this is that they owned the IP of having the original Pumpkin Spice Latte in the game. The brand has two social media accounts for the trademarked drink, on Twitter and Instagram respectively.

Having social media accounts for products is a tricky game because it gets confusing on what to create after a little while, but Starbucks has stayed consistent. 

They post updates, announcements, and keep the account buzzing with unique hashtags even during the off season. 

We have even seen live streams of the drinks arriving via the social media accounts. 

Kimp Tip: When you set out to own your IP, the content you create can get pretty redundant if you do not get creative. So diversify your content via videos, GIFs, print campaigns, and so on to keep the audience invested throughout. 

If that sounds like it’ll take more time and money then you can manage right now – try out our Kimp Graphics + Video unlimited design subscription. You’ll get graphic design, illustrations and motion graphics and video editing from a dedicated team for a flat fee! Kick things off with a free trial.

4. Understand FOMO marketing 

FOMO plays a major role in most marketing campaigns, but there are very few who understand the basics of it and apply 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) get FOMO. And then going a step ahead by segmenting additional campaigns to directly cater to the people who like and/or are interested in the product but don’t use it yet. 

The Pumpkin Spice economy ticks all of these boxes. 

  • Starbucks got the wheel turning by introducing PSL into the market and effectively creating FOMO for anyone who did not try one or have 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 to Pumpkin Spice Chai Lattes 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 ahead 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. 

5. 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. 

We spoke of owning your IP which may or may not always work depending on what product you have launched. So what is a business to do when owning an IP isn’t possible? Well, 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 related to pumpkins. They have a newsletter that features recipes, pumpkin products, and gives customers a little bit of history and knowledge around 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 top of mind for consumers and makes them a success during 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.

Pumpkin Spice your marketing designs with Kimp 

The rise of Pumpkin Spice to take over fall marketing is a lesson in consumer psychology and the power of good designs as well. When you can create something that taps into a customers’ 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 unlimited design subscriptions are right here to make that happen for you. All for a flat monthly fee, and no additional charges for revisions or the number of users. 

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