Marketing Indulgence: The Pumpkin Spice Miracle.

It’s cozy, autumnal, comforting, and it photographs nicely. What do we know about the magic that drives the Pumpkin Spice Latte social marketing campaign?
Mary Liebowitz
September 17, 2014 - 2 min. read

I learned about Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte a few years ago through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. My social feeds were filled with people sharing photos of their lattes and gushing about autumn like their lives depended on it.

The Pumpkin Spice Latte, or “PSL”, has a cult-like, international following and generates an immediate emotional response from its name or image. The sheer amount of PSL’s user-generated content that rolls through social networks is astounding.

This year, US sales began unexpectedly early in August. Although fall hadn’t yet arrived, Starbucks’ chalkboards and window signage blasted images of pumpkins and fall leaves, letting customers know the PSL was here.

I visited my local Starbucks to sip an autumnal beverage, and see if I could reverse-engineer the frenzy.

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I couldn’t. It was a flavored cup of coffee.

I’m still in awe, however, of the power this cup of coffee is able to harness, and how much of my feeds it permeates. Starbucks have engineered a truly successful social marketing campaign here.

Obviously, they have tapped into the relevant emotional cues of their target market – the personal indulgence of a branded cup of coffee, the societal recognition of “treating” yourself with this coffee and the positive experience, the brand’s graphics (the green siren logo, carefully-lettered in-store chalkboard signage) that translate well to socially shared images, and the cozy associations with fall that contribute to a presentable appearance on social networks.

The user-generated content for the Pumpkin Spice Latte also permits visual humble-brags when the latte is photographed in front of the steering wheel of a new car, or held by newly manicured fingers, or hovering over a nice jacket and coveted pair of shoes, matched by the casual hastags of #sundaycoffee and #ilovefall. It’s pure PSL magic.

Translating emotional marketing to action points

So how do we translate this as marketers to our own B2C products, or B2B?

Here’s what we came up with:

  • Understand your target audience; their habits, likes, hobbies, and interests
  • Know and understand the other products that your target audience consumes
  • Don’t focus on what your product can do, capture the benefits that your product provides, and the associated emotions
  • Get abstract – you sell lamps, but will people use them more in winter, for example? How can you put storytelling to use around this?

There’s a scarcity/seasonal aspect to the Pumpkin Spice Latte campaign that doesn’t transfer to every business model. And sure, B2B might not lend itself nicely to a whipped cream topping and a sprinkling of nutmeg, but you still have consumers that are affected by your product. What’s the desired effect you can bring them, and how can you build out that story?

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