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Welcome to the 'pumpkin spice economy'

D’Amore-McKim School of Business Associate Professor of Marketing Bruce Clark examines what he calls the “seasonal creep” surrounding both the popularity and disdain of Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte. With an earlier rollout this year than ever before, both fans and haters alike are talking about the fall drink.

Published

August 30, 2018

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Starbucks recently released their Pumpkin Spice Latte a month earlier than usual, much to the delight of its devout drinkers and rage for those who want summer to be appreciated until its last day. D’Amore-McKim School of Business Associate Professor Bruce Clark examines the “seasonal creep” surrounding the Latte and why it causes some people anxiety.

Q Why do some people like it?

The Pumpkin Spice Latte (also known as PSL) clearly has a following. Part of this has to be the flavor itself. There’s a substantial population that finds the pumpkin spice flavorings attractive, and in fact there now exists what some have called the “Pumpkin Spice Economy” encompassing between $350 and $500 million in annual sales. This includes not only pumpkin- flavored coffee from Starbucks rivals such as Dunkin’ Donuts and Panera, but baked goods, craft beer, and yogurt, among others.

Beyond flavor, however, seasonal products tie into the feelings of that season, and emotions are a powerful motivator for purchase. To the extent you’re looking forward to the fall season, here is one reminder of that season. Buying the product reinforces those good feelings. We may even notice ads for seasonal products more if we are attuned to the seasonal change. That pumpkin spice has a very strong scent is another potential trigger: the sense of smell is strongly tied to emotions and memory.

Q: What do some people hate it?

Part of this has to be the flavor itself! Pumpkin is not to everyone’s taste. There has also been criticism that “pumpkin spice” is a completely artificial flavor. Famously, Starbucks only began including actual pumpkin in its drink in 2015.

Criticism this year has focused on a relatively early launch. This is an example of what has been called “seasonal creep,” when marketers expand selling seasons in a way that appears artificial. Think about Christmas decorations in October or the increasing portfolio of “days” around Thanksgiving (Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday).

The key word in both of those reasons is “artificial.” Authenticity is a big trend in consumer markets today, and to some people the PSL promotion can feel like an exemplar of all the things big brands do to us to distort the “natural” cycle of our lives. Think about the recent backlash against stores asking their employees to work on Thanksgiving as an example.

Read more on News at Northeastern.