"Pumpkin Spice" — introduced in 2003 by Starbucks as a limited-run, seasonal latte flavor — has expanded far beyond even food & drink to a completely pervasive, mostly-loved, theme of North American, autumnal culture.
To celebrate "National Pumpkin Spice Day", I wanted to reflect on: Why is this flavor/smell/experience so popular?! And, what can we learn about ourselves as shoppers and consumers from the mighty impact of the PSL?
Associative feelings of warmth & nostalgia with pumpkin spice
There is something powerfully nostalgic about the scent & taste of pumpkin spice. It must have began because of pumpkin pie itself — the associations of actually eating pumpkin pie with the warmth of family, rest, & the holidays. (Or maybe more like the "healing of the memory" version of those holidays where the relational tensions are forgotten, but your senses remember only the pie!)
But, now pumpkin spice has become firmly planted in September, and there is a new layer of nostalgia for back-to-school and changing season vibes. Like Joe Fox's sentiment to send Kathleen Kelly a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils (You've Got Mail), we feel a fresh-start optimism about the close of summer & the arrival of colorful leaves. All of those feelings have somehow become wrapped up in the smell and concept of pumpkin spice!
Researchers at Johns Hopkins have even found evidence that just reading smell-related words, like "pumpkin spice", will spark activity in the same area of the brain that processes actual olfactory stimulus. Just the mention of pumpkin spice (or seeing the phrase emblazoned on a pillow?) can give us cozy vibes.
Pumpkin spice is now more in the realm of a season or tradition, like Christmas or July 4, with all of its own markers (including, but not limited to, the actual pumpkin pie flavor).
These are all good things to know & consider when we're thinking about our own shopping habits & inclinations. How much am I influenced by nostalgia and warm fuzzies? Do I embrace it? Does it increase my happiness and is a net gain, or am I caught up in sentiment and will regret that PSL hoodie later? 😆
The Illusion of Scarcity of Pumpkin Spice
Because all things pumpkin spice are for a limited time only, there is a fear-of-missing-out (FOMO) element here, as well. It's the ultimate act-now-or-you'll-regret-it-later tactic! PSLs (and the like) will literally only be available until the orange goop runs out (and winter holiday drinks roll out). Now is the time!
Could you make & enjoy food or drinks with a combo of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, & allspice anytime? Of course! The connection with the seasonality of fall harvest is tenuous at best... anyone baking pumpkin goods in the fall is using canned puree. And, many "pumpkin spice" items don't even have any pumpkin in them. Starbucks added pumpkin puree to their recipe in 2015, but it is so negligible that it doesn't even impact the nutritional facts.
So, can you enjoy pumpkin spice anytime? Technically yes. But who wants to?
Desire to participate communally
Is it a trend if everyone is doing it?
After 20 years, we're confident: pumpkin spice is not a passing fad. There was a plateau of interest in pumpkin spice a few years ago, but then 2022 brought it back in full force. Researchers (yes, they have researched the public's attitude towards PS) theorized that after the communal interference of covid, people were even more keen to get out and share a (positive) experience with others.
We are compelled to seek community, to enjoy togetherness, and to want to belong. Getting on board with this "basic" pleasure has been one way that consumers have sought those social needs.
Is there anything that pumpkin spice can't do? 😂
Trendjacking of Pumpkin Spice
A 2022 study of social media & search activity related to "pumpkin spice" revealed that beyond the natural, major players (Starbucks, Dunkin'), this term also pointed to brands like Etsy and Amazon. Items like signs, tees, candles, & dog bandanas have become ubiquitous.
Other brands, with zero products related to pumpkin spice (in either food/drink OR merch), also use the phrase and the associated positive vibes to boost sentiments towards their own business or product. Like the pumpkin photo we have above!
I think it is fascinating that a brand choice (apparently, Starbucks initially considered calling it the "Fall Harvest Latte") could gain so much momentum that it actually impacts our sense of seasonality!
This scent/flavor/fever dream has captured the market & every big brand dreams of landing the next "pumpkin spice". Can it happen again? Do we want it to? Are you a PSL enthusiast or an eye-roller?