Though it is hardly unusual to root for the underdog, the vast majority of people would not expect most underdogs to usher in a renaissance. When Starbucks tested a pumpkin flavor on a sample of customers, who were by no means spellbound, no one anticipated the flavor revolution that followed.
With a decade of service under her belt, Mid-Hudson Starbucks Café Manager Erin Binford-Markou remembers the original pumpkin spice, which she says was improved most recently with the addition of actual pumpkin. While it is not syrup like most of the company’s drinks, it contains caramel coloring, which is a known carcinogen, New York Daily News reporter Meredith Engel writes. Yet customers refuse to make alterations to the beverage when placing their orders.
“We’ll start to sell more once it cools off,” Mid-Hudson Barista Tyler Smith said. “People make changes to other drinks, but not PSLs. They won’t even ask for it iced.”
Starbucks started developing the flavor in January 2003 after the company observed the success of its peppermint mocha and eggnog lattes, winter seasonal beverages, Peter Dukes, Starbucks’ director of espresso Americas, told The Daily Meal. The lengthy brainstorming process consisted of flavor laboratories exuding the fiery aroma of cinnamon sticks, the burnt oranges and brilliant reds of fallen leaves that crunched and crumbled as workers scurried across the floor, and the uniquely autumnal taste of pumpkin pie—a different family recipe for each employee. The result: 10 products to present to customers. Chocolate and caramel flavors worked best in testing, so the idea of a pumpkin coffee drink was a leap of faith for Starbucks, which selected the flavor because there wasn’t anything like it at the time.
“It used to be when you thought of fall, you thought of cider, falling leaves, and hot soup,” wrote Forbes contributor Micheline Maynard. “Now, as autumn begins, the American landscape is dominated by a single force: pumpkin spice.”
The highly anticipated release date each season has evolved into a sort of national holiday. And once it’s here, it’s everywhere.
It’s the epitome of promotion tactics. Starbucks’ brand values are not just about serving coffee, but also the people who drink it. “Everything they do is about delighting their customers,” Marist College Professional Lecturer in Advertising Kathleen Boyle said. “All the seasonal products are just the outward manifestation of that purpose.”
Starbucks has been able to “stimulate unique sensory experiences through interpersonal connections,” according to Marist College Associate Professor of Economics Dr. Ann Davis. Through hackneyed images of fall, the company transforms this “affordable luxury” into something more nostalgic: “wanting to connect to something that might’ve been authentic once.”
But for naysayers, the pumpkin spice latte craze is an awful lot of hoopla that “has gone a little too far.”
“People live on the stuff,” Clarkson University student Brendan Gibbons said. “When I think of pumpkin spice lattes, I think of all the stereotypes” of those coffee connoisseurs.
John Reilly, on the other hand, claims he has not paid much attention to the autumnal festivities. “The seasonal aspect […] plays into it somewhat,” the Boston College graduate said, “offering a certain sense of scarcity, which I imagine would increase demand.”
Of course, “scarcity” is no longer an issue.
Waltz into any Starbucks after the first week of September and the focal point of the coffeehouse is a metallic board, displaying a coffee cup framed by leaves and, of course, pumpkins. “HELLO, PSL: so glad you’re here,” it reads.
Dunkin Donuts recently introduced Pumpkin Swirl to its flavor lineup in order to compete with Starbucks and other chains with the demand for pumpkin spice beverages during the fall season. McDonald’s has their own version of the Pumpkin Spice Latte to pair with their new take on the famed apple pies: pumpkin pie.
But the worship of artificial flavors does not end with coffee. Bigelow, Stash, and Davids Tea have their own collection of pumpkin spice tea bags.
Should carbs be more appealing than a cup of tea, look no further than Arnold Bread and Thomas for pumpkin spice sliced bread, bagels, English muffins, and lasagna. Snack time can be pumpkin time too, with Pumpkin Pie Spice Pringles and Pumpkin Spice Latte M&Ms. And for the dog: pumpkin flavored dog treats from Trader Joe’s.
What seems “excessive” to some is a cause for celebration for others. Though Boyle prefers gas station coffee, she attests, “Seeing all the pumpkin products as a whole reminds us that fall has started.”
Indeed it has. Few events scream autumn louder than a worldwide celebration of the 10th anniversary of Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte. “To celebrate Starbucks PSL fans’ decade of pumpkin devotion,” the 2013 festivities included décor homey enough for Grandma’s house, exclusive discounts, and specially-designed merchandise, according to the Starbucks Newsroom website. But not all the marketing was done in stores. Starbucks offered a limited edition Swarovski PSL 10th Anniversary Mug online for a mere $338.00.
“It’s been great to see the trajectory over the past decade, because when we launched PSL ten years ago—yes, it has a nickname now—we took a bit of a risk on a new innovation,” said Dukes. “You just didn’t see pumpkin-flavored food and beverages ten years ago the way you do today.” In its 12th season, pumpkin spice has continued to exceed expectations, harnessing the decisive image of the fall spell.