By Caitlin Brennan

October 18th, 2016

It’s not fall…it’s not leaf-peeping time…welcome to pumpkin spice latte season.

It’s hard to believe that Starbucks has been making the iconic pumpkin spice latte for 13 years, since the drink has become something of an icon over the last half-decade or so. As much a part of the uniform of a certain set of 20-something women each October as an expensive scarf, pumpkin spice has found its way into everything.

From the good to the questionable, pumpkin spice isn’t just a bunch of seasonings we use to make pumpkin pie palatable, it’s a cultural marker for a certain lifestyle associated with youth and disposable income. In other words, catnip for anyone in marketing, advertising of consumer goods sales.

"it’s a cultural marker for a certain lifestyle associated with youth and disposable income. In other words, catnip for anyone in marketing, advertising of consumer goods sales."

It’s the most wonderful time of the year
Starbucks used a tried and true method to turn people onto pumpkin spice: artificial scarcity. The easy thing to do with a great new product is to offer it as widely as possible. Instead, offering it only in the fall turns one menu item into a scheduled phenomenon. Pumpkin spice season comes but once a year, but Very Berry Hibiscus Starbucks Refreshers™ will lurk on some forsaken corner of the menu all 365 days. The fact that 72 percent of consumers buy only one per season means that many people who buy PSLs do it just because it’s pumpkin spice season, which is unique.

Not every brand has an obvious seasonal angle, but the principle of artificial scarcity could work in many situations. For example, advertising new sneakers, (yes, they exist) as widely available and reasonably priced creates neither a sense of urgency nor excitement in a consumer. Identify influencers in your targeted demographic, send them some limited edition shoes and let them do the selling for you.

Influencer monitoring allows you to identify key individuals within the interlocking social world of your fans and see how the messages they send disseminate through your targeted demographics.

Trend jack(o-lantern)
It’s hard to start a trend. Starbucks found something that many people identified with, one thing lead to another, and now they sell $100 million worth every year. Setting out to make the next pumpkin spice latte is like trying to make any bedroom-based YouTube wannabe a worldwide star: the role of luck far outweighs talent.

With luck hard to come by, consider something more predictable: trend-jacking. Don’t be ashamed to hop on the bandwagon now and then, just as long as you don’t overreach. There are a few ways to go about this, each tailored to a brand:

The straightforward:
Marshmallows usually evoke images of campfires, not fall flavors. Jet-Puffed Marshmallows prove they will not be limited to summer. By creating and sharing recipes, Jet-Puffed stays relevant longer. Not groundbreaking stuff, but Jet-Puffed created tangible value for the consumer.

The somewhat-justifiable stretch:
Outside of food, sometimes you need to do things with a wink and a nod. Here, a wink. Covergirl created this smokey pumpkin eye to capture the essence of classic fall colors. Makeup has a colorful history of inventive names, so it can be excused if a literal reading would make the look sound like a sexy Thanksgiving centerpiece.

The non-sequitur:
While we’re on the subject of eyes, let’s go through the looking glass, shall we? This is a very special honorable mention. You know it’s a stretch, the person who put up the sign knows it’s a stretch, and we can all have a laugh. For all the social media theory and quantitative analysis out there, sometimes all it takes is a big ol’ sign to generate buzz.


Conclusion: Will we ever be bored with this gourd?
As is often the case with trends, the backlash has already begun. Bigger, slower brands are at a special risk of being the last one to use the joke. Just imagine doing a Harlem Shake video or an Ice Bucket Challenge today: it’s over! PSLs, as ubiquitous as they may be, are actually pretty tasty. But we’re very close to the period at which we will look back at pumpkin spice mania and laugh. It’s bittersweet how we can only see the full creative potential of a trend once it is completely beyond adding to. Whether you create the next seasonal craze or just make fun of it, the important thing is to listen to consumers and pay attention to what they want.

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