The cult of the pumpkin spice latte
The cult of the pumpkin spice latte

By on in Branding

The cult of the pumpkin spice latte

Those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are getting a taste of those very first crisp fall mornings. Some around here associate fall with the start of school or harvest season. But for legions of coffee drinkers, autumn only means one thing: the return of Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte.

More than a drink, the pumpkin spice latte (or PSL, for short) has become a full-on movement. Each year, lifestyle bloggers trumpet its official launch date. Fans plaster photos of their first latte of the season with the hashtag #PSL across social media.

How did we get here? Let’s explore the PSL’s cultish following, why it started, and how you can leverage some of the trends propelling PSL fever in your marketing.


A brief history of the PSL

Starbucks first launched the pumpkin spice latte in 2003. It was popular, generating millions in sales and outpacing other seasonal holiday beverages offered by the brand.

At the same time, though, it drew some negative attention. Many wellness influencers pointed out that the drink was full of artificial ingredients, sugar and—shockingly—lacked any real pumpkin. (Starbucks has since changed its recipe, incorporating pumpkin in 2015.)

As its popularity grew, the critiques became about more than just the drink itself. PSL became associated with “basic girl” culture. For those unfamiliar with the term, the pretty unforgiving top definition of “basic girl” on Urban Dictionary even calls out the stereotype’s love of Starbucks. Judgey Twitter has been coming for girls and their PSLs since the early days of the drink.

But despite this negative cultural commentary, this latte remains an unstoppable force. It is still a massive draw for Starbucks, and dozens of other brands have gotten on the pumpkin spice train, launching other food and beverages, candles, and beauty products featuring the flavor and scent.


Going, going, gone

One of the major draws of the pumpkin spice latte is its seasonality. Fans know they only have a few months during which to get their beloved PSLs, so they pound as many ounces of pumpkiny goodness as possible between August and November.

Psychologists have researched why limited-time offers are so effective. In the early part of a short-term offer, people buy because it’s top-of-mind. All the signs announcing the return of the PSL get people excited and buying. Then, as the season winds down, there are the anticipatory regret buyers. They know the PSL will be gone soon and want to get in one last latte before Starbucks rolls out its holiday cups.

Another element with the PSL is the timing of the seasonality. Fall can be a downer time. The days are getting shorter, the weather’s colder, another year is drawing to a close, holiday stress is right around the corner. Pumpkin spice lattes are something fun to look forward to—a simple treat you can give yourself throughout your day.

Even if your product or service isn’t inherently seasonal, building the sense of a limited-time offer into your marketing can increase demand.


Haters gonna hate

Who knew a caffeinated beverage could create so much drama? For all its lovers, there are some pretty passionate PSL haters out there, too.

Many criticize the drink for being the domain of basic girls. But PSL fans don’t care. In fact, many lean into the criticism, reclaiming the basic girl memes.

Starbucks, to its credit, takes this cultural criticism in stride. The header image on its official PSL Twitter account features a perfectly manicured hand gripping a latte cup and a sign with that script font all motivational “girl power” artwork uses.

In the case of PSL devotees, “basic girl” culture has been coopted to create a latte in-group. When a PSL fan—latte in hand—passes a woman on the street with Uggs, leggings, and loose-curled ombre hair, also clutching a coffee cup, they exchange knowing glances. They’re both #TeamPSL.

Starbucks and the PSL fans have made the sage decision to pick their battles. You can get into a fight about anything with a stranger on the internet. They’ve chosen not to let PSL be the digital hill they die on. And just like when you ignore the school bully, much of the hubbub has died down over the years, leaving fans to enjoy their lattes in peace.

This should be a lesson to social media managers everywhere. Use discretion when responding to criticism. Some serious concerns deserve a response. But fighting over the “basicness” of a $4 latte? Save your energy.


Creating in-group

I recently read a book about cults and language (the fascinating Cultish, by Amanda Montell), and there is more overlap between brand loyalty and religious zealotry than you might think.

Montell argues that both cultish brands (SoulCycle) and actual cults (The Peoples Temple, AKA the Jonestown folks) are all about creating an in-group. By making members feel like they’re part of a community or shared experience, they build strength. Some use that power for ill, and some just use it to sell stuff. Starbucks capitalizes on the in-group phenomenon in selling its pumpkin spice lattes.

Cult leaders (or brands) looking to create in-group do so by developing private signifiers that allow one follower to recognize another on the street, simply by the words they use or actions they take.

In the case of PSL devotees, basic girl culture has been coopted to create a latte in-group. When a PSL fan—latte in hand—passes a woman with Uggs, leggings, and loose-curled ombre hair, also clutching a coffee cup, they exchange knowing glances. They’re both #TeamPSL.

No matter how serious or frivolous, any organization has the power to create in-group in the way they position themselves in the market. Professional services firms may do it with branded swag. When you see a stranger with your law firm’s insignia on their umbrella, you know they’re one of your people. Consumer brands use social media to create product-specific hashtags, in-joke memes, and unique terminology that devout followers come to associate with your brand.

As absurd as it may feel to spend this much time talking about a seasonal coffee drink, there’s something worth examining in what Starbucks has done here. The pumpkin spice latte packs a lot of branding and marketing juice into a small paper cup. There just may be a tactic or two you can pick up for your brand.

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