Starbucks has been slinging (can you sling a latte?) its incredibly popular Pumpkin Spice Latte for around a decade. While they didn’t invent the spice combination, they’re at least partially responsible for the increased pumpkin-spicing of our drinks and desserts every fall for the past ten years.
Drinks and desserts are one thing, but now the heady combination of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice has mixed its way into donuts, shampoo, candles, and beer (oh, and also pies).
Why the popularity of pumpkin spice? Micheline Maynard of Forbes believes that its popularity is due to the fact that it connects to a variety of different food cultures: “You’ll find cinnamon used in a wide variety of cuisines, ginger in Asian food, nutmeg in Middle Eastern dishes, and cloves in a variety of Mediterranean and African foods,” she explains.
Good point, and we’d add a few other factors.
First, this spice combination is classic and beloved. It did its thing hundreds of years before hipsters and soccer moms and will, no doubt, outlive Starbucks.
Pumpkin spice, for Americans, at least, is tied to a specific time of year, a time to which many people feel strong positive emotional connections. As an extremely aromatic ingredient, it’s especially successful in connecting to our sense of nostalgia.
Another important factor is its imposed scarcity (we call that a “scarcitease”): the Pumpkin Spice Latte is available only in early-to-mid-fall. Its recent surge in popularity has extended its availability, but it’s still around for only a fraction of a year.
Consider the McRib, that compressed, processed phenomenon, the barbecue wonder whose ephemeral nature has created/spawned diehard fans. If the McRib were available all the time (as it once was), it’s a safe bet that fewer Facebook pages would devote themselves to it—we desire (and romanticize) what we can’t have.
If pumpkin spice lattes were available year round (as many dream of, I’m sure), would it lose its luster? Hard to say, but human nature points to yes.
Limited-edition, seasonal products are typically restricted to fall and winter. The savvy product developer, then, should see great market potential for seasonally specific flavors at many other times of the year (something the beer industry does well). Leaving them wanting more (alongside thoughtful food, beverage, and ingredient marketing!) is almost always a good strategy for long-term growth.