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Three Lessons About Consumer Power From the Pumpkin Spice Latte

Today marks the return of the official harbinger of fall. No, not changing leaves. Not back-to-school. Not college move-ins or football or sweater weather. I’m talking about the PSL!

In case you don’t live around the corner from one of North America’s ~13,000 locations, Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte is the brand’s wildly popular seasonal indulgence. It is their best-selling seasonal menu item ever and it boasts its own social media accounts (instagram, twitter), a couple hashtags (#psl #psllove), and a fanatical tribe of PSL devotees.

Last year, there was some major online hoopla that began with the food babe over PSL’s supposedly shady ingredients. Toxins! Sugar! Color! Not Real Pumpkin!

Personally, I am neither a devotee nor a hater. I do go to Starbucks sometimes and I am a member of their points "club", but I mostly make coffee at home. I do like healthy food and avoiding weird stuff, but I am highly wary of the food babe and her over-the-top fear-mongering. So, I don't really have any skin in the game, but I think that there's something interesting here worth exploring. 

This year, Starbucks changed its ingredients to exclude caramel colouring and include real pumpkin. Whether you love or loathe the PSL, or whether you think the food babe is a saviour or a lunatic, what can we glean from the tale of the PSL?


1. Something that makes a lot of money is *NEVER* going to go away

When I heard people charging Starbucks to remove the drink from the menu, I rolled my eyes & shook my head. I had seen the numbers on the PSL: at its 10-year anniversary in 2013, Starbucks had sold 200 million of them. It was not going ANYWHERE because of one basic rule of business: a for-profit enterprise will NEVER stop selling something if they are selling hundreds of millions of them. Never!

Majority rules and so does the almighty dollar. And the PSL is what you would call a “cash cow.” Mooo…

And speaking of milk,

2. My latte is the reason why

Whether it is a coffee or a pair of jeans or a smartphone or a tub of yogurt: if I'm not buying it, they would not be selling it. [Note: I do not have delusions of grandeur here about my personal spending... I am referring to the collective "I" - pointing the finger at myself first and above all!].

In the documentary Food, Inc., the filmmakers tour an organic yogurt farm with some Walmart executives who say, straight up, we only started buying this for our stores because it is something people wanted to buy. Of course, it is an easy way to keep clean hands and a guilt-free mind to say “we only give people what they want”; it excludes them from ethical tensions and frees them from their ability to shape the culture, which as a massive body with loads of money & power, they surely can.

But, there is a simple truth here. We are the ones shopping. We are the ones buying. We are the ones fueling the machine. If corporations are sticking solely to the can we do it? question, then the should we do it? question is left to me & my shopping friends. And like it or not, we speak the answer when we open our wallet.

The businesses who do happen to be asking both questions of themselves are all the more deserving of our sales & loyalty.

It’s hard to feel like it matters. What is 1 drop in a sea of 200 million? Take it from a small business owner: each purchase matters. I may not be spending $1K or $100K or $1Million, but $5 is still a lot of money – what else could $5 buy? What about 10 x $5? It matters. 

3. Pressure leads to transparency

Internet shame, in many instances, has gone completely out of control, and when applied personally, it is not good. But, when we’re talking about businesses serving customers, social media enables shoppers to have a voice even beyond their spending dollar.

One of the results of the PSL ruckus was that Starbucks is (apparently) planning to release all their product ingredients in 2016. Personally, I do not appreciate the food babe’s ill-informed claims or fear-mongering, but I am a fan of transparency.

The more that brands & big corporations have to disclose the details of their recipe, or supply chain, the more they have to look in the mirror to ensure that what they show is what shoppers want to see. This, in my opinion, can only lead to positive change.


Phew, that was some serious-sounding stuff. I need a break. Anyone up for a PSL? ;) Do you think that the small purchases you buy make any difference in the grand scheme of things? Tell me!

 images via Starbucks


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