The Pumpkin Spice Latte Phenomenon – And What Marketers Can Learn From It

Today, September 22, marks the first official day of fall. But for many people, the first day of fall begins earlier, on a different day- the day when Pumpkin Spice Lattes are finally available at Starbucks.

The Pumpkin Spice Latte is now considered to be the most popular seasonal beverage of all time, and though recent numbers are not yet available, Starbucks sold over 200 million of them from its introduction in 2003 to 2015. Those numbers are nothing to laugh at, but there’s a lot more to it. The Pumpkin Spice Latte has become much more than just a beloved beverage; it has become an ideal that many marketers are trying to live up to.

But how exactly has the Pumpkin Spice Latte been so popular year after year, and how does marketing play a role in that? The simple answer: social media.

Pumpkin Spice Lattes may be delicious, but a good product alone is not enough to generate the type of buzz that this beverage has gotten. What really allowed the drink to take off is social media, and Starbucks leveraged that to create a robust community of loyal brand followers surrounding the Pumpkin Spice Latte. Now, every fall, there is a barrage of social media posts with the hashtag #PSL- on Instagram, for example, there are now nearly 672,000 images posted with the hashtag #PSL. These images range from simple snapshots of the beverage, to people holding the beverage as an accessory as they showcase their outfit, to general fall-themed pictures.

Starbucks capitalized on this buzz by creating social media profiles specifically for the Pumpkin Spice Latte called “The Real PSL”, which has 115K followers on Twitter, and 36.9K followers on Instagram. On these accounts, the Pumpkin Spice Latte is personified, posting pictures in sunglasses with quippy captions and punny hashtags.

Over time, Starbucks has taken further steps to engage fans and promote the PSL. In previous years, Starbucks has allowed people who play games to get early access to the PSL. In 2016, Starbucks launched a Facebook Messenger bot, allowing fans to chat directly with the popular beverage. This year, they really teased the release of the drink with an 80-hour long livestream of an inanimate pumpkin. Though the video was painfully simple, it garnered a lot of buzz on social media as people speculated what it meant and when they would be able to have their precious pumpkin spice lattes.

It is always fascinating to observe the marketing techniques Starbucks adopts in promoting the PSL, and how the masses respond to them. Overall, the Pumpkin Spice Phenomenon, as we will call it, teaches us a few things about how to successfully generate buzz on social media:

  • Incorporate user-generated content (UGC). Starbucks has always made a point to engage with and reshare user-generated content, and when it comes to PSLs, there is a lot of it. Starbucks frequently likes content shared featuring the PSL, and they even share it from company profiles. There is strong evidence that sharing UGC works for brands- research has shown that among millennials, UGC is 35% more memorable and 50% more trusted than other types of media. In addition, UGC is 20% more influential in purchasing decisions than all other media types. Starbucks knows that, and they use that to their advantage. By sharing UGC, Starbucks creates a sense of community of PSL lovers, and that drives even more sharing, and ultimately, more buying.
  • Generate excitement with limited time offers and exclusivity. Part of what makes the PSL so popular is that is only available for four months out of the year. The fact that lovers of the PSL can only get it during four months, they have a greater sense of urgency to engage and buy during that time. Starbucks also creates a heightened sense of exclusivity by offering some consumers early access to the PSL. Creating a sense of scarcity around a product, whether real or imagined, makes the product appear more valuable, and makes users feel more powerful.
  • Use the buzz to your advantage and better your product. Of course, positive buzz about a product or brand is a great way of getting increased brand exposure. But generating buzz on social media should be about more than just that. Conversations surrounding products and brands on social media can become great tools for marketers. Marketers should engage in social listening and monitor for feedback or complaints, and then use that information to better the product and improve future customer satisfaction. Starbucks did this when it came under fire for not including actual pumpkin in the PSL– they took complaints into account, and now the PSL contains real pumpkin puree, which has pleased many customers. Research shows that engaging with concerned customers is a good business move- when companies engage and respond to customer service requests and feedback over social media, they spend 20-40% more with the company.

While there are many lessons that can be gleaned from the wild success of the Pumpkin Spice Latte, the ultimate takeaway is this: Social media engagement matters, and it can take your product or brand to unprecedented heights.

An important thing to note is that much of the success of the PSL came from customers themselves- not from paid ads, or paid “influencers”. Most people posting about the PSL are regular people- customers who love the beverage so much that they are willing to post about it on their social media profiles.

The kind of people that post about the PSL on social media are exactly what we refer to as brand advocates. When a company realizes and taps into the power of its brand advocates, great things can happen.

That being said, not every company is Starbucks. It can be hard for some companies to identify, incentivize, and engage brand advocates to share posts about the product or brand on social media. Luckily, Fanzee is here to help. As the platform for everything social media advocacy, we have the tools and expertise to help you start your brand advocacy program or campaign from the ground up.

Did we get your attention? Go to to learn more, and sign up for a free demo!