My Love/Hate of Pumpkin Spice: A Brand Story

Tis the season for the Fall Freakout over anything minutely related to “pumpkin spice.” The mere announcement that pumpkin spice lattes are coming at Starbucks causes many in the yoga pants wearing community into a fitted frenzy. Beer lovers wait feverishly at the turn of the fall leaves for their beloved pumpkin beer to hit the shelves at the local market. And the dollar signs come rolling in.

Over a vegetable. A pumpkin.

Seriously. It never ceases to amaze me how crazy some of my friends and relatives get over squash – posting pictures of their orgasmic beverages on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. So, no, I don’t get it.

However I toast the geniuses at Starbucks with creating the now 12 year old craze that hooked all of you.

“When you taste PSL, it tastes just like fall,” said Peter Dukes, director of Espresso and Brewed Coffee for Starbucks.

Starbucks, more than any other brand, has packaged what fall smells, looks, feels and tastes like! Cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves…and pumpkin. This perfected concoction presented to consumers every fall for a limited time only is like crack. And it is the number one selling product in their line up.

While defining fall, Starbucks has also created an emotional connection to their brand through a flavoring – a consistent formula (only improved by the use of real pumpkin this year) that represents your attachment to Homecoming, jumping into leaves and anything else you have associated with the season.

And, as with other brilliant marketing ideas, other brands have followed suit – creating similar “fall experiences” that have proven effective. Local brewers O’Fallon Brewery and Schlafly have spice infused seasonal ales in their arsenals that send the taste buds of many beer connoisseurs to the moon.

“Our Pumpkin Ale blends the spices of the harvest with full-bodied sweetness for a beer that tastes like pumpkin pie. Pounds of pumpkin form a malty foundation that supports the fall flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove.”- Schlafly | St. Louis, MO

While pumpkin beers were produced in the early days of the American colonies, they were different from the pumpkin beers we know today.  Colonists used pumpkin and squash as the fermenting medium, since malted barley was scarce.  Once malt became more readily available, it replaced these alternatives to grain. In the 1990’s, American craft brewers reintroduced the style to the delight of pumpkin beer drinkers. – Schlafly | St. Louis, MO

While ultimately annoying to people like me, pumpkin (a produce item that one of my favorite writers claims as the “genital wort of the earth”) has created an enhanced brand story and deeper emotional connection for many brands. It invites an opportunity for a conversation – a creative and nuanced way to make a product (that contains very little actual pumpkin) to feel like tradition – part of a larger story.

The biggest struggle for most of the brands we talk with everyday is not in the amount of marketing stuff they do. It is about the stories they can tell about why they are doing it. The presence of pumpkin spice in everything we put in our face holes is evidence that stories are powerful.

If you are leading a brand that is struggling to retain some market share and relevance, your challenge is: What is a nuanced story you can tell? What is a little nuance of nutmeg and clover that will create an opportunity to make your brand experience feel like a time-honored tradition (manufactured or not)?

To Starbucks, I raise my non-PSL, black morning coffee (bagged and tagged by you, brewed by me) in your general direction. You have won the loyalty of the UGG boots public, and, in turn, many other brands. Well played.

And to Cassie Celuch, Ellen Celuch, Kitty and Jason Schipkowski…better get it while it lasts folks. The clock is a tickin’.

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