How Starbucks Got Us All to Fall in Love with PSL

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By now, unless you live in Uzbekistan where 99.6% of the population drinks tea, you’ve heard the news that Starbucks’ beloved pumpkin spice latte (simply known by its shorthand, PSL) will be making its debut Aug. 28—at least, if you believe the leaked internal documents. The iconic coffee drink's debut date signals the unofficial start of fall for millions, which is coming earlier than ever and is only the second time in four years Starbucks will release the drink before September.

The last time the PSL arrived in cafes during August was in 2014, when only a select few who completed an online scavenger hunt run by the coffee company were allowed to imbibe during the dog days of summer, while the rest of the country had to wait until Sept. 2. Starbucks remains coy about this year's release date for the latte, telling the media, "Our pumpkins aren’t ready to make their handcrafted PSL debut yet. We’ll have more news to share soon."

Looking at the birth of a beverage

The fact that a concoction of espresso, milk, syrup and spice has captured the news cycle stands as testament to the drink's success in building a fanatical following. Since its conception in 2003, the pumpkin spice latte quickly attracted its loyal devotees, a legacy its creator Peter Dukes could hardly have imagined more than 15 years ago. “Nobody knew back then what it would grow to be,” Dukes said. "It’s taken on a life of its own.”

Dukes, the company's director of brand management for espressos Americas, recalls in a 2013 interview with The Daily Meal how he and his team struggled to come up with a new drink for fall to mirror the success of Starbucks' holiday seasonal drinks, Eggnog Latte and Peppermint Mocha. Although chocolate and caramel-flavored drinks initially generated more interest than pumpkin, the novelty of a latte tasting like the end of Thanksgiving dinner proved too compelling to let go. "Anyone who is particular about their own pumpkin pie recipes knows there are a lot of pumpkin pie recipes," Dukes said. "We started to experiment with high-pumpkin, low-spice, low-pumpkin, high-spice combinations, ultimately landing on a recipe with more spice in it."

Starbucks initially tested the new drink in stores in the Vancouver and Washington, D.C., markets, and Dukes quickly knew it struck a chord with customers. “Within the first week of the market test, we knew we had a winner,” he said. “Back then, we would call store managers on the phone to see how a new beverage was doing, and you could hear the excitement in their voices.”

Designed to be loved

The exuberance with which the PSL is greeted by its fans every year goes far beyond thirsty customers looking forward to their favorite drink. As McDonald's (which offers its own pumpkin spice latte) demonstrates with the McRib, scarcity can often drive demand in the fast food business. "When you have these exclusive products, which exist for a short period of time, it gives people a reason to come to the store," Alexander Chernev, professor of marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management told CNN. Combine that demand with the fact that people seem to innately seek out temporal landmarks—birthdays, anniversaries and the changing of seasons—to help organize their lives, and the hoopla around the PSL is less about how good the drink tastes and more about how it signifies the opportunity to turn over a new red-and-gold hued leaf.

That passion for autumn is on full display in the 19,579-member strong (at the time of publication) Leaf Rakers Society, a Facebook group created by Starbucks "that celebrates….Fall. Year. Long." Some of the rules of the Society include

  • Please: no hatin’ on fall. This includes pumpkins, cold breezes, leaf piles or autumnal-themed scarves.
  • Topics should be fall-themed, because it’s the best season.
  • Be like fall: be cool. This isn’t a place for religious or political debate. Or potty-talk.

Starbucks' sponsorship of the Leaf Rakers Society is just the latest move by the company to engage and grow the community of PSL lovers out there, with the goal of whipping them into a frenzy of anticipation. It's also a way for Starbucks to stand out from an ever-growing crowd of pumpkin spice latte competitors. McDonald's, Dunkin Donuts and Tim Hortons all offer their own take on the PSL, but none of them command the attention Starbucks garners with its blitz of social media engagement. “Social media was the accelerant that fueled the contagion of PSLs,” Marcus Collins, the chief consumer connections officer at advertising firm Doner, told NBC News. “The observability of consumption, thanks to these connected technologies, have created the perceived ubiquity of PSLs, which creates intrigue and influences mimicry among our networks of people.”

One bold example of that engagement was Starbucks' decision last year to post a Facebook Live video titled "PSL Pumpkin Hatch" that showed a pumpkin in a giant bird's nest in a sound studio made to resemble a rustic farm. During the 80-hour stream, producers would spice things up with bizarre activities such as puppies frolicking around the pumpkin, the pumpkin "watching" television, and more. The avant-garde marketing ploy eventually lead to a reveal that PSL would be available Sept. 1st, but the true insight gleaned from the stream was how natural it felt that the return of the PSL should warrant such an ambitious venture. Like the lighting of the Christmas Tree in Rockefeller Center or the president pardoning the turkey for Thanksgiving, the reveal of the PSL has become a big deal people anticipate.

The article, How Starbucks Got Us All to Fall in Love with PSL , originally appeared on ValuePenguin .

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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