The leaves are falling from the trees, kids are back in school, and the pumpkin spice latte has reappeared on the menus of Starbucks all over the country.
Never mind that a few weeks of summer still remain. The beverage has become such an autumn staple that it has given Starbucks the de facto authority to declare the start of the season whenever its marketing department deems most opportune.
In the sickly sweet coffee drink, known in grating shorthand as the PSL, Starbucks has created a social phenomenon that transcends a relatively simple caffeinated concoction. It’s a derisive cultural cue for the stereotypically “basic” taste, the genesis of a flavor trend that’s invaded every other corner of the seasonal food world, and a 14-year-old cash-cow menu item that has become synonymous with the Seattle coffee house chain’s brand.
“Pumpkin Spice Latte is the most popular seasonal drink we’ve ever had with over 350 million cups sold in the U.S. alone since its debut,” Starbucks spokesperson Maggie Jantzen said. “[We] know that for many, it signals the start of the Fall season.”
It’s now served in nearly 50 countries across the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
To what does this mix of pumpkin-spice sauce, steamed milk, and espresso owe its ubiquity? The answer seems to be a combination of savvy marketing, social media appeal, and the natural novelty of foods associated with the holidays.
Before all that, though, the drink originated as a bit of a hunch. Of the couple dozen or so beverages Starbucks’ coffee whizzes had cooked up to mark the 2003 Fall season, the PSL scored well behind front-runner flavors like chocolate caramel and cinnamon spice in market testing.
Still, the team decided to give it a shot, never expecting it to strike the gold mine it did.
“Nobody knew back then what it would grow to be,” Peter Dukes, the product developer in charge of the effort, said in a statement. “It’s taken on a life of its own.”
The drink was a hit with customers right off the bat, and it sustained its success with a marketing campaign that switched up the launch date each year to make its otherwise routine reappearance feel like a surprise special occasion.
It wasn’t long before the pumpkin-spice craze spread to everywhere from McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts to gourmet restaurants. You can now even find it in CVS cough drops, breakfast cereal, and Oreos.
But the beverage really hit its stride at the dawn of the social media age, when Instagram photogenics and hashtag cachet suddenly became of paramount concern to plugged-in millennials. Starbucks capitalized on the drink’s popularity on Instagram and other platforms with special accounts and dedicated hashtags.
But most of the attention the drink received came from people who were just genuinely excited to share their coffee order with the world.
“Starbucks is doing a tremendous job with [Instagram],” restaurant industry consultant Aaron Allen said. “With Instagram in particular, it’s about less staging, less corporate styling, and trying not to look like you’re trying too hard.”
There’s perhaps no better testament to the social sway of the drink than the absurd amount of attention paid to a Facebook Live broadcast that marked its launch this week. As a pumpkin sat motionless a la April the giraffe in the moments leading up to some odd interactions with a man dressed as a farmer, Facebook commenters puzzled over what they thought to be a secret code about the release, fumed over the hours the livestream was putting between them and the drink, and even argued about what to name the pumpkin.
It’s corporate devotion like that that’s helped inspire the somewhat mean-spirited meme associating pumpkin spice lattes with “basic” white women. Like any big fad to hit the mainstream, the drink has attracted its fair share of detractors who’ve grown tired of the yearly hype surrounding the drink rollout and the special enthusiasm with which it’s consumed.
Could the pumpkin spice latte obsession finally be nearing its peak? It’s possible. Some have suggested that maple-flavored seasonal treats may already be hot on its heels.
But given the 15,000 tweets and 37,000 overall social media mentions it generated in September of last year alone, no one is forgetting about the pumpkin-flavored caffeine fix anytime soon.