Each year when fall rolls around, we can rely on a few things to happen: the air grows crisp, the leaves start to turn…and pumpkin spiced products hit the shelves of cafes and grocery stores. No longer is Autumn just about cozy sweaters, apple cider, or the approaching holidays. Now there’s an additional emblem for the changing season—one that involves the blend of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg. This seemingly simple combination of spices in fact packs a major punch, and continues to dominate the food marketing world. From cereal and cookies, to beer and even vodka, it’s hard to imagine what can’t be flavored with pumpkin spice. What’s the secret behind its success?
The pumpkin spice phenomena first took off with the launch of Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte in 2003. While the flavors have been present in many traditional holiday baking recipes, pumpkin spice can attribute its more recent spike in demand to Starbucks. The company’s sweet-and-spicy fall-in-a-cup was an immediate hit, and quickly led to other food brands to join in on the growing trend. Now almost 15 years later, the PSL is the #1 selling seasonal drink of all time, and grocery stores continue to flood their aisles with an array of pumpkin spice goods each Fall. Whether you’re the type to embrace the autumnal flavor, or roll your eyes at the lengths some brands take to include it into their products, we can all agree that pumpkin spice has become the flavor of Fall.
With a combination of clever marketing strategies and the inherent nostalgia of foods associated with the holidays, pumpkin spice products continue to fly off the shelves each Fall. Everything flavored with pumpkin spice, from pancake mix to candles, is marketed in a way that conditions our brains to consider it to be synonymous with Fall. This means that every time we eat something pumpkin spice, or breathe in its aroma, we’re also ingesting the associations and feelings that come along with the season. One does not merely drink a Pumpkin Spice Latte or nosh on a Pumpkin Spice Oreo, they also consume cherished memories of family gatherings; as well as feelings of comfort and nostalgia. By tapping into the human side of marketing, pumpkin spice conveys a certain feeling and season through the simple act of eating. This continues to drive its high consumer demand each year, making it a highly marketable seasonal product.
Not only does the sentimentality behind pumpkin spice contributes to its high marketability, but also its limited seasonal availability. Sure, the flavor of pumpkin spice delicious, but the anticipation for its annual return can be even more tempting. Seeing that you can’t get pumpkin spice flavored goods any time of year, its desirability and value automatically increase during the Fall. This can be explained by a psychological theory called “reactance,” which helps to understand why we are drawn to limited edition offers, or crave gingerbread cookies during Christmas time. While the actual product itself is enticing, the fact that it’s not available whenever we want it is enough to make even the least-enthused person reach for the pumpkin-spice shortbread cookies in the grocery-aisle.
All in all, the reason behind pumpkin spice’s success has less to do about its flavor, and more about its marketability. It’s a harmonious blend of the taste, the story, the meaning, and the marketing that all contributes to its popularity. While pumpkin spice continues to dominate the grocery aisles today, it’s hard to tell whether this seasonable flavor will last. Will the over-saturation of pumpkin spice products make consumers become less infatuated by its flavor, and more irritated by its presence? Or will we continue to be wooed by its nostalgia and charm? While we don’t exactly know how long pumpkin spice will remain a trend, as long as it continues to provide the same comfort and coziness of Fall, it will keep making a grand appearance each season.