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Marketers Can Learn From Pumpkin Spice Season

11/03/2015 11:19 EST | Updated 11/03/2016 05:12 EDT
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Autumn Pumpkin Spice Latte with Milk and Cream

As winter approaches and the trees are losing their leaves, there's no better time to take a good look at the season passing us by: Pumpkin Spice Season. Not every season gets its own flavour or official beverage, but every autumn consumers can't avoid pumpkin spice everything, from baking mixes and cookies, to Kahlua and granola bars.

Not to mention the now-ubiquitous latte which has its own Twitter handle with more than 121,000 followers.

While it tends to be a love-it-or-hate-it flavour, there's a lot that marketers can learn from the pumpkin spice phenomenon:

It's okay to show favouritism.

Back in 2003 when Starbucks first introduced the Pumpkin Spice Latte, it's unlikely the company expected it would go on to sell more than 200 million cups over the next 12 years. But once the brand realized what it had, it turned the seasonal beverage into a hero product. While the chain continues to sell dozens of combinations of coffee and tea products, and launch other fall specialty drinks during the same time period, it celebrates and promotes the Pumpkin Spice Latte above the rest.

The lesson for marketers:

Not all products are equal all the time. It's okay to focus on certain products even if it means that others will sell less. The buzz, the conversation and the hype create a halo effect, and it means that even the naysayers know what's going on with the brand.

Pumpkin spice has transitioned from a flavour to an event.

This year, local Starbucks locations posted countdowns to brewing up that first cup. The chain also provided loyalty card members with a special code to get early access to the beverage. What brands have learned is that those who love the flavour anticipate getting their hands on it. They work hard to build anticipation and then make its arrival a special event by keeping it around for a limited time. Consumers don't want to miss out because they know they'll have to wait another whole year for a pumpkin spice scone or a Pumpkin Pie Ice Capp at Tim Hortons.

The lesson for marketers:

Building tension can be highly effective. Creating anticipation and limited time offers heighten the experience and makes purchasing a priority. Coca-Cola frequently uses this technique for limited-time collectible bottles or can designs, even though the product itself stays identical.

Pumpkin spice is a trending topic.

Besides its aforementioned Twitter handle, pumpkin spice has become a fall staple on Instagram feeds, making good use of the popular #PSL -- at last count, nearly 400,000 photos use the hashtag. And it's not slowing down. In fact, when comparing Canadian search results to those from the U.S., Canada's actually out-searching its neighbours to the south on the topic, and the numbers keep rising. But it's not only pumpkin spice fans and coffee shops making use of the hashtag. Magazines are using the hashtag to drive readers to fall-themed beauty articles. Other brands are using it to attract contest entries or promote their own products, whether or not they're pumpkin-spice related.

The lesson for marketers:

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Instead of hoping for lightning in a bottle and creating your own trend, figure out when "trend-jacking" makes sense. And if you're the brand others are jacking? Make sure you're the loudest, most visible presence in the mix.

Whether or not you savour the flavour, there's much a marketer can take away from the pumpkin spice phenomenon -- at least, until Peppermint Mocha season arrives.

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