Why the Pumpkin Spice Latte wins

We’ve officially turned the calendar to a new season: fall is here.

In the last 10 years or so, American society has turned the arrival of fall into something of a holiday: there are special foods and things to wear, special things to do, and of course, special drinks. This pin drop is about the Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Of course, Starbucks uses PSL to brand it further (you know, #PSL).

In the last 2-3 years, beverage companies have caught backlash for using artificial pumpkin flavor in their drinks. The brewers know this far too well. This is, of course, a natural extension of our ever-changing food scene, which emphasizes natural and fresh ingredients, and de-emphasizes preservation through chemicals. This may have driven Starbucks to change its artificial #PSL to a natural #PSL using real pumpkin. Yes, REAL PUMPKIN!

PopSugar tried one of the early ones, indicating it may sweeter than what we’re used to. That may hurt sales a little, but make no mistake, we’re still living in a #PSL world.

Of course, Nielsen says about 72 percent of #PSL customers buy it once. Most people don’t have many during the season. And 37 percent of consumers buy a pumpkin-flavored item in the fall. That’s actually – regardless of what the piece tells you – pretty high for a niche flavor at any time.

So what is it about the #PSL and other pumpkin items? For millennials it’s part of what I’m calling the burgeoning “Moment¬†Economy,” the economy of the insanely popular mud runs and pop-up concerts and such. The Pumpkin Spice Latte (and other pumpkin products) are items that drive moments. Fall is coming, so we should wear sweaters and jump in leaves, pick apples and, of course, buy our favorite fall drink. If people buy the #PSL once, it’s probably on a weekend afternoon in the midst of other fall activities. The #PSL is a moment to be shared with friends over social media. It’s a point of happiness in an otherwise terrible reality.

The Pumpkin Spice Latte is popular because it takes the most indicative seasonal element (the pumpkin), marries it with an inexpensive enough item (coffee) and makes it accessible to everyone in the upper-middle class echelon (Starbucks), the echelon that has the most trend-driving ability.

This is precisely the reason why Starbucks’ other seasonal offerings don’t have such broad cultural appeal. I enjoy the Gingerbread Latte, but gingerbread is too niche of an element to reach everyone’s interest. We nearly all went trick-or-treating for Halloween, and we nearly all immediately think of pumpkins when we hear “fall.” Very few of us actually created a real gingerbread house during Christmastime.

And look, Starbucks is now launching a new flavored coffee for fall: the Toasted Graham Latte. According to Starbucks, the drink is a nostalgic reminder of eating cereal as a child. Yes, nearly everyone has eaten cereal, but this marriage is a little less obvious to most consumers, who will merely see “toasted” and “graham” and decide based on past experiences with those words, and what that flavor may reveal. “Pumpkin” is a strong reference. The article linked actually gives Starbucks the appropriate strong reference for this #TGL: S’mores. A S’mores Latte would be a decent seller in late summer.