There’s no food trend more pervasive, divisive or durable in American culture than the pumpkin spice latte. Not kale or cake pops, flatbreads or rainbow bagels, macarons or even, quarantine sensation, Dalgona coffee. While all these edible fads have faded after a few months and some Twitter buzz, 17 years, over $1.4 billions dollars and 1.5 millions Instagram posts later, we’re still talking about that sweet, spicy ambrosia called the PSL. (Starbucks trademarked the acronym in 2013).
When Starbucks rolled out the seasonal fall drink in August, marking the earliest ever PSL opening weekend, customers were interested. The company’s chatter increased from 29,4000 people discussing the company on August 5, to 205,000 people on August 29.
The early rollout was likely intended to bring some cheer to our dark days. And to salvage Starbucks’ share price, which has languished as the pandemic disrupted our morning routines. Indeed, the PSL’s release drove their weekly foot traffic, which has been down around 20% during the pandemic, up nearly 15%, to just 6-7.5% below last year. Nature is healing!
People are going to Starbucks in droves to sample the PSL despite the fact that over the last 17 years, the beverage has become synonymous with, “basic white girl” culture, a flashpoint for consumer anxiety over marketing, rumored to cause diabetes and cancer, and ripped off by dozens of competitors.
How did they do it?
The best last minute decisions Starbucks ever made
The PSL almost didn’t exist. Executives nearly binned the drink during development for the exact quality that has made it beloved to consumers. “A number of us thought it was a beverage so dominated by a flavor other than coffee that it didn’t put Starbucks’ coffee in the best light,” Tim Kern, a Starbucks founder and former executive for more than 20 years, told Quartz Magazine in 2013.
It was 2003. Seasonal drinks were just becoming a thing and Starbucks was on a mission to recreate the success of their limited-edition winter drinks, Peppermint Mocha and Eggnog Latte, according to SeattleMet. But how to bottle the feeling of fall in a corrugated cardboard cup? Pumpkin pie polled near the bottom in a customer survey of 20 potential fall flavors run by Seattle company’s “Liquid Lab” run by Director of Espresso Peter Dukes.
Despite the lack of enthusiasm, Dukes thought a pumpkin drink was worth pursuing “since there wasn’t anything around pumpkin at the time,” he told The Daily Meal in 2013. Pumpkin was among the four flavors prototyped, which led to a now infamous R&D session in which coffee scientists poured over pumpkin pie and espresso, deliberating over how to turn a slice of pie into a latte.
The decision they made would later lead to the first of the drink’s many controversies: the original PSL recipe doesn’t contain any pumpkin. Before the drink was revamped to include some actual hot squash in 2015, the orange color came from artificial dye, while “pie spices,” nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves make up the drink’s flavor.
Would the caramel-chocolate concoction, cinnamon streusel latte or the orange spiced drink that were also being considered for a fall marketing campaign have a pop culture symbol? We’ll never know.
Despite Kern’s concerns about a coffee company trying to sell drinks that were barely coffee, the pumpkin spice latte was piloted at 100 stores in Vancouver and Washington D.C in the fall of 2003. Dukes said "we couldn't keep up initially... we had to expedite inventory to the stores." Sales rapidly beat expectations, as well as records set by the peppermint mocha and eggnog latte. It was rolled out in all stores the following year.
In the first decade of the PSL, 200 million lattes were sold, crowning it Starbucks top-selling drink. In 2019, CNBC estimated that Starbucks had sold 424 million cups of the stuff. Starting at $5.25 for a grande, that means PSL’s have earned Starbucks well over two billion dollars.
Selling a season
Part of the PSL’s rise to fame was that Starbucks successfully convinced people that drinking a warm cup of milk, sugar and spices were the ultimate way to experience fall — a way to make fall feel even more like fall. “Pumpkin Spice Latte has become more than just a beverage,” Dukes said in a 2014 post on Starbucks’ site about the history of the drink. “It has become a harbinger of the season.”
People like to look forward to things. As Forbes wrote in 2013, part of the magic behind the PSL is that “products that are available only for a limited time have a kind of built-in marketing that can grow in impact over time." The PSL typically goes on sale around Labor Day. Employees scrub the pumpkins off their chalkboards to replace them with snowflakes at the end of October. Starbucks has (steamed)-milked this model for all its worth: each year comes with a flashy roll-out plan that includes special deals and massive social media campaigns, including wholesome gifs, memes and beverage photoshoots the PSL’s official Instagram and Twitter accounts (@TheRealPSL).
The Pumpkin Spice Industrial-Complex
The PSL started a flavor revolution. Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonalds now serve their own pumpkin spiced coffee drinks, as well as pretty much very artisan coffee shop across the country come fall. Almost every major food brand from M&Ms to Krispy Kreme to Cheerios to to Pop-Tarts to Peeps to Oreos to Eggos to Cliff Bars to Talenti rolled out a pumpkin-a-fied version of their classic product. Between liquor, beer, chapstick, oatmeal, jam, yogurt, deoderant, soy milk, popcorn, protein powder, dog food, baby food, english muffins, cream cheese and more, Forbes estimated that by 2018, the pumpkin spice industry was worth $600 million.
There are different theories on why the flavor itself is so addictive. Catherine Franssen, assistant professor of biopsychology and director of neurostudies at Longwood University in Virginia, says it’s about nostalgia, and how the flavor reminds us of our happy holiday memories. Cultural and economic factors play a role as well. Our nostalgic tendencies were on overdrive when the PSL came on the market, thanks to the 2008 recession, hypothesizes food expert Suzy Badaracco. “Pumpkin became recognized as part of the comfort food trend during the recession in 2008,” due to its association with Thanksgiving and the holidays, she told Vox in 2014.
The beverage was an instant commercial success but it didn’t become a cultural obsession until the early to mid ‘10s, as Twitter and Instagram took over our lives. The whipped cream-topped drink, speckled with spices started showing up all over our grids — #cozy, #fall, #psl.
Everyone tried the pumpkin spice latte once, but part of its success was becoming associated with a certain kind of person. While the “basic bitch" uniform has evolved over the years, from a North Face, leggings and Uggs, to the suede thigh-highs, dark blue jeans and oversized sweater ensemble we might see today, one thing that has stayed consistent is her love for the pumpkin spice latte. The drink became a literal accessory — ‘Bucks cup in one hand, Longchamp bag in the other — for and an emblem of generic, conventional, suburban, middle class femininity.
Pumpkin Spice Backlash
In opposition to this figure, hating on the PSL became a cult trend of its own. To be fair, the drink’s spine-shivering sweet taste can genuinely be quite polarizing. But mostly, people came to feel the PSL and its gel manicured keeper were an emblem of everything wrong in our society: consumerism, conformity, seasonal creep, social media performativity, manipulative marketing, GMOS and the corporate food industry. The PSL hater became its own cliché: a miserly, flanneled Vice fan — probably a man, given the strong air of misogyny about the whole debacle— who either wrote or read articles like this one from 2014, “Fuck Pumpkin Spice,” which described the act of “Purchasing highly processed pumpkin-spice-flavored things” as “artificial bullshit that has come to mean absolutely nothing, and that represents what is essentially a void in your personal taste and likely your entire character.” In the end, this intensity of cultural projection probably only sold more pumpkin spice lattes to hipsters sampling them ironically and people seeing what all the fuss is about.
From meme to moral panic
The backlash to pumpkin spice lattes was many-fold. They were rotting away at our souls and individuality, but also our organs. In 2015, the prominent food blogger Vani Hari, who’s sense been outed for her use of pseudoscience to craft shock value headlines, published a blog post that would go viral titled “You’ll Never Guess What’s In a Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte (Hint: You Won’t Be Happy).” The post “outed” the fact that there was no pumpkin in the recipe, and claimed there were 50 grams of sugarin a medium, along with other ingredients like “Monsanto milk,” “pesticide residue” and multiple alleged carcinogens. Readers were directed to the Starbucks customer service phone line and a petition to demand the company “stop putting toxic chemicals in your pumpkin spice latte.”
Amidst a general health craze over saturated fats and preservatives, the viral article kicked off a scare about the PSL and sparked reasonable interest in the three pumps of syrup, 380 calories, 14 grams of fat, and lack of pumpkin in the drink. Bloomberg cites Hari’s post as the reason that Starbucks eventually changed the PSL recipe in 2015, pulling the artificial coloring and adding a pinch of pumpkin puree to their recipe to appease customers who felt they’d been duped.
Reclaiming the PSL
The peak of the PSL hype and controversy was in 2015 according to Google Trends, which shows searches for the “pumpkin spice latte” spiked in September of that year. The hype, the hot takes and the backlash — including essays about how the backlash to the PSL was a sexist manifestation of class anxiety — has all long quieted down online. Basic bitch discourse is a thing of the past: mommy bloggers with Q-Anon slogans in their bios have replaced “basic bitches” as the terror of Instagram.
Pumpkin spice’s popularity hasn’t been a straight rise. In 2017, menu data showed that mentions of pumpkin beverages fell 10%, according to Eater, in a report that suggested maple was on the rise instead. The year prior, in 2016, although pumpkin spice products for sale were up 50% from 2015, sales only increased 21%, according to 1010data. Starbucks’ foot traffic actually dropped 2% after the 2018’s opening pumpkin spice weekend, according to RestaurantDive, ostensibly due to fatigue with the product and surrounding cultural conversation. The downward trend in Starbucks’ social followings wasn’t impacted by the PSL launch in August. Their Instagram following has dropped by nearly 100,000 followers since early June. Meanwhile Starbucks’s Facebook followers have steadily decreased since November of 2019, dropping nearly 100,000 since the beginning of the year.
However, in light of the Covid-19, Vox suggests that we’re currently seeing “a backlash to the backlash.” Customers who feel “over” PSL discourse entirely are just craving a little comfort and normalcy in unstable times and want to enjoy a damn latte — basic bitches, their haters, health influencers and seasonal purists be damned. It’s yet to be seen if Starbucks’ PSL traffic lift will last throughout the season, but as the country continues to struggle with a recession and pandemic, comfort and nostalgia might be some of the biggest drivers getting us out to the drive-through line.
Pumpkin Spice Latte comes back tomorrow and I am 100% getting one in 91 degree weather because this world is a shitshow and I take joy where I can get it, like in delicious flavored coffee drinks.— drunk until 4b haught (@drunkhaught) August 27, 2018
I had a pumpkin spice latte today. Too early? Maybe. But 2020 taught us nothing is certain. Live for today.— Carolyn Monaghan 🍍🧘🏼♀️🧜♀️📚🇨🇦 (@fitter_knitter) September 6, 2020
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