On Wednesday, September 23rd, the seasons shifted. The sun peeked happily from behind the clouds while a crisp breeze tugged at the changing leaves, beckoning them to join the slight chill in the air. Except no. Here in Greenville, SC, we woke up to 75% humidity and a cloudy sky, and we almost reached 80 degrees by mid-day.
But, still, it was the first day of fall. We could finally see the end of the summer’s melting heat and look forward to boots, scarves and pumpkin spice lattes. While I’m sure every coffee shop (save the fancy, no cream, no sugar, pour-over-only shops) has their own version, I think we can agree that Starbucks dominates the PSL market and has revolutionized the way many of us feel about this seasonal flavor.
For example, I don’t really like pumpkin pie. Sure, I may have a slice because it’s thanksgiving or to be polite, but it would never be my dessert of choice. And if my frame of reference for pumpkin-flavored things all came back to the thanksgiving pie with soggy crust and melting whip cream, well, I’d probably avoid all other pumpkin-y products.
However, when I think of pumpkin-flavored things, I envision a creamy, smooth, frothy concoction that has the perfect balance of coffee and pumpkin. Let’s be honest, though, I’ve never actually had real pumpkin, so I’m just guessing that’s the pumpkin I’m tasting. The point is the PSL has made me a pumpkin believer, so when I see those frozen pumpkin waffles at Trader Joe’s, I can’t help but put them in my cart.
I’m not the only one who has fallen in love with the fall fruit. In fact, according to Nielsen, pumpkin product sales have increased 79% since 2011. But why is it that we love PSLs and all things pumpkin? How has this product become so successful and what can we learn from it?
The drink is really good, and while you may be thinking this was an easy feat, please see my memory above about pumpkin pie. Pumpkin is a tricky flavor. It even took Starbucks over a decade before they added actual pumpkin to the drink. But someone found a way to take the best part of pumpkin pies and make them into a memorable fall drink, which has led to a host of other products. Of course, some people don’t know when to stop a good thing, and so we have products like Pumpkin Spice Pringles. Bottom line: for something to be this successful, it HAS to begin with quality.
Because it came out in the fall, it was naturally associated with things that make most of us happier: cooler weather, changing leaves, football games, etc. It reminded us of time with family and holidays like thanksgiving (soggy crust and all). When you’re already sentimental about a time or a product, it’s easy to like something that further reminds you of those good memories. Now, 12 years later, the PSL reminds us of fall; we can’t imagine a fall without a PSL. If you want your product to have similar impact, think about what existing positive associations you can connect to.
What’s the real reason we all rush to buy one the moment they stock that orange syrup? It’s available for a limited time only. Because the drink is only sold in the fall, there is a certain exclusivity that leads to an urgency of purchase. To increase that sense of urgency, this year, Starbucks also released the drink early to gold card members by sending them a “PSL Fan Pass,” which had to be shown to the barista while ordering. Obviously, this tactic makes sense for restaurant and beverage chains that can easily add/remove single products. But, it’s good to remember that if nothing sets your product apart or makes it appear exclusive to your consumer, there won’t be much urgency to purchase.
So, I’m curious – are you a PSL fan? Or do you prefer to stick to pumpkin beers (because there about 50 different varieties of those now, too)?
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Faith Jones—Writer & Editor