3 Reasons the PSL is Such a Cultural Phenomena, Even If it Doesn’t Really Taste Good

How did a simple coffee beverage achieve world domination?

Written by Lily Jablonski, Marketing Manager at Mekanism

Cue “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”. No it’s not Christmas, but it might as well be. It’s the time we’ve been waiting for since the first time our air conditioners went out this summer. It’s the time where we start to add layers to our clothes, go to football games, toss leaves in the air for an Instagram post. It’s almost fall!

And what’s the one sign of fall we love not because it’s good, but because it gives us hope? That would be Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not mad at the PSL. I’m just the only person on earth brave enough to admit it doesn’t taste very good, but I appreciate the vibe that comes with it. I envy Starbucks for creating a product that’s so mediocre, yet so incredibly successful. Here’s a little background on the Pumpkin Spice Latte and how I think Starbucks created a monsterpiece.

The Pumpkin Spice Latte was born in 2003. Starbucks had seen the value in signature/seasonal flavors after the rise in popularity of the Peppermint Mocha and Eggnog Lattes. The brand wanted to take advantage of this momentum by creating a new seasonal beverage. Starbucks’ Director of Espresso (cool job alert!), Peter Dukes had been pouring espresso shots onto pumpkin pies for months when he finally nailed the recipe. If you’re like me, you hadn’t noticed that pumpkin pie spice doesn’t include pumpkin, therefore the PSL didn’t actually contain any P! That is, until the brand adjusted the recipe in 2015 to include the gourd, but I digress. The drink launched as a test in 100 stores located in Vancouver, BC and Washington DC with huge success. After its nationwide US launch in 2004, it was Starbucks’ most successful seasonal beverage ever!

From its launch in fall of 2003 through 2015, over 200 million PSLs were sold. To date, Starbucks has brought in over $1.5 billion in sales on the beverage.

The Pumpkin Spice Latte was a product marketing slam dunk. It was designed to succeed. Promotion of the drink was easy enough, considering the instant popularity. But three key elements to the design of this product are what stand out to me as the reasons why we don’t really need to love the PSL to love the PSL.

Seasonal

Pumpkin Spice Lattes are available from September to November. This seasonal nature adds excitement and urgency, while perfectly complimenting the vibes of fall. By the time the PSL drops every year, everyone is spent on summer and itching for cool weather, falling leaves and comfy sweaters. Pumpkin Spice Lattes are a man-made sign of changing seasons right when we need it most. Starbucks uses social media countdowns and #aesthetic imagery to get you pumped. Once launched for the year, Starbies fans are hit with in-app offers and endless appearances of the drink on their social media.

Shareable

Pumpkin Spice Lattes begin to fill our Instagram feeds almost immediately after they drop which feeds the brand with endless free promotion and UGC. It’s one of those unique products that can’t just be ordered and consumed- they have to be SHOWN OFF. This isn’t for bragging rights, it’s for camaraderie. The Pumpkin Spice Latte is more than just a mediocre coffee beverage, it’s a community.

Social

Starbucks has capitalized on this social media hype by creating dedicated Twitter and Instagram accounts exclusively for the beverage. These accounts cumulatively share over 120,000 followers. The brand also shares user generated content on their own page often- even featuring customer photos in their paid social media. Starbucks is known for being very engaged with their audience which further fuels the content machine.

These three factors all played a major role in the world domination of this drink. Once the pumpkin spice was unleashed, we began to see it everywhere. It started innocently enough, with other beverage brands like Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s and even 7-Eleven creating pumpkin spice copycats. But as with all things pure, they must be ruined. Buzzfeed published an article with a list of the most obscure pumpkin spice flavored products out there- including cough drops, cleaning products and pasta. To say it’s gone too far is an understatement, but at this point the outrageousness is a fun constant in our lives, right?

Starbucks struck pumpkin flavored gold when they launched the Pumpkin Spice Latte. From inception, it was meticulously crafted to be a hit, but I don’t think anyone expected the cultural shift that could be created by a latte.

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