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Oh My Gourd: it's a pumpkin spice world

Concordia marketing expert Caroline Roux reveals why a certain fall beverage makes people go gaga
October 1, 2015
By Meagan Boisse

Pumpkin Spice Latte | Photo by Kathryn Buncik (Flickr Creative Commons) A Pumpkin Spice Latte in its element. | Photo by Kathryn Buncik (Flickr Creative Commons)

In the past decade, fall’s arrival has somehow become synonymous with the availability of the Pumpkin Spice Latte, known by aficionados as “PSL.”

Since Starbucks first stumbled upon this pie-like concoction in 2003, it has sold more than 200 million cups, making it the company’s most popular seasonal drink ever. What’s the secret ingredient? 

Caroline Roux, assistant professor of Marketing at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business, points to the PSL’s short annual lifespan: “Starbucks only makes it available during a very specific time of the year, which causes it to seem special,” she says.


“They created a narrative story around the PSL that strongly associates it with autumn — that once pumpkin spice is out it means fall is here.” Roux notes that, ironically, for the past two years the drink has actually been launched in August.

To many, the PSL has also managed to embody much more than a mix of caffeine and pie spices. The drink stars in a myriad of social media memes, many of which play on a concept pop culture currently defines as “basic”: a suburbanite, yoga-pant-wearing woman who champions all things mainstream.

“It's interesting that the PSL fits into this new trend of being basic or norm-core, where nowadays being uncool is cool,” says Roux. “Pumpkin spice is almost uncool. It's too sugary, too sweet, too marketed, but everybody has to have it.”

Starbucks plays this up on social media. The PSL is an active presence online and has its own Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter accounts. With more than 114,000 followers, @TheRealPSL features a Ray-Ban-wearing latte that tweets on behalf of the company as if it were a celebrity.


Roux says that by anthropomorphizing the latte Starbucks is able get in on the joke, nodding to the “basic” segment of the company’s consumer demographic. The latte often comes off as somewhat “basic” itself.

“They’re definitely playing along with something the demographic that would usually buy the PSL can identify with and is happy to share.”

These days, pumpkin spice is no longer reserved solely for coffee — or pie, for that matter. It’s everywhere: in our waffles, muffins, cakes, candles, lotions, M&Ms and even beer. According to marketing research firm Nielson, in the United States sales of pumpkin-flavoured items rose 11.6 per cent last year alone to $361 million.

Roux says part of the reason pumpkin spice seems to incite mania in the American (and Canadian) masses could be that the pumpkin itself is a unique part of our cultural identity. The aroma of pumpkin pie functions as a nostalgia trigger, a sensory reminder of a simpler, more authentic time.

Roux cites the recession of the 2000s as a reason for the start of the trend.

“The U.S. was going through uncertain times and when people go through that kind of loss of certainty they fall back on things that provide comfort,” she says.

“I think what pumpkin spice is doing for Americans in particular is reminding them of Thanksgiving, home, family, comfort, tradition, connection.”


Learn more about the John Molson School of Business. Also, find out where to get seasonal treats on Concordia's two campuses.


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