It’s officially fall—which means the Pumpkin Spice Latte epidemic is in full swing. Already, PSL fever has generated big social media wins for Starbucks. But beyond the caffeine, what exactly makes us so addicted to the PSL year after year?
Consumer psychology helps explain why the pumpkin-pie-flavored beverage has become Starbucks’ most popular seasonal beverage of all time. Indeed, at one time, the rise of the PSL was considered unlikely. According to an account in the Seattle Met, the pumpkin spice drink barely registered among consumers when Starbucks first tested the idea in early 2003. When surveyed about a theoretical fall drink, consumers picked chocolate and caramel flavors over a theoretical pumpkin pie latte, with the latter landing near the bottom middle of 20 potential drink flavors.
Luckily for the world (or unluckily, depending on which side of the #PSL debate you land), the idea didn’t die there.
Back before the PSL was the PSL, pumpkins and spices still loomed large in the world of iconic fall foods. Pumpkins are a touchstone of American cultural identity in the fall—whether you carve one and set it on your porch, or take your kids to a pumpkin patch. Pumpkin pie is a long-held Thanksgiving tradition. Indeed, the spices that go into that pie are “deeply familiar, almost primal to consumers,” the Seattle Met noted.
And so the pumpkin pie-flavored drink, later dubbed the Pumpkin Spice Latte, came into existence by nodding to the smells and tastes associated with a specific time of year. Even the recipe was tweaked to evoke the mouthfeel of eating pumpkin pie, according to the Seattle Met.
Starbucks’ perfected recipe quickly made a splash. By injecting a seasonal meaning into the beverage, Starbucks stimulated the feelings of nostalgia that arise when we look back at passing time. Nostalgia can generate positive feelings, helping drive positive associations with the start of fall and a PSL. In fact, nostalgic feelings can improve our mood and make us feel more socially connected, according to Jordan Gaines Lewis in Psychology Today.
As a handy byproduct, nostalgic feelings also encourage spending. A study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that consumers who feel nostalgic are more likely to spend money. So even if we aren’t too keen on the flavor of a PSL, feelings of nostalgia may keep us buying PSLs in an annual fall pilgrimage.
The fact that the PSL recipe is designed to evoke seasonal nostalgia is only half the story. The success of the pumpkin spice beverage is owed in large part to clever social media marketing.
Consumers’ posts about their ritual PSLs are hard to ignore. “To follow #PSL on Twitter or Instagram this time of year is to be flooded with images of those Starbucks cups, brandished, hoisted, or artfully arranged to showcase that familiar acronym scrawled on the side in black,” the Seattle Met notes.
The numbers are staggering. At one point on Twitter, Tweets about the drink numbered over 5,000 per minute. Even weeks before fall had actually begun, Instagram posts tagged with #pumpkin related to the drink numbered more than 731,000. Another 468,000 were labeled #PSL, according to Spredfast data detailed in Adweek. The magic is in the pumpkin: PSL photos received 493 percent more likes than photos tagged with #Starbucks.
On Facebook, Starbucks launched a Facebook Messenger bot called “The Real PSL” that allows users to chat with a sassy latte persona and receive photos and GIFs, Time reported. (The ability of the bot to actually converse was only so-so, apparently).
By turning up the volume on social media, Starbucks and its premiere fall drink have made pumpkin spice a social must-have. Social conformity—our desire to fit in with the group—helps explain the consumer psychology behind this. People want to feel connected and secure within a group, and being a part of the trend can make us feel happy and included.
Of course, in the age of social media, simply drinking the PSL isn’t enough—you have to post about it, too. The more people that post a PSL photo to Instagram, the more PSLs seem like a societal norm. We join the crowd because it makes us feel a little happier and more secure to be a part of the group.
The fact that PSLs only appear fleetingly is another consumer psychology trick. When we hear something will exist for a limited time only, we want to make sure we can get our hands on it. Reactive theory explains how people react when they perceive their freedom to be limited. When a choice becomes impossible, the freedom to engage in a specific consumer behavior is threatened. That makes the behavior all the more attractive.
By tying PSLs to a specific time period, Starbucks takes away a tiny freedom from the consumer—the ability to order a PSL any time of the year. Marketers have long known that adding “limited time offer” can help drive sales. By restricting pumpkin spice beverages to a specific season, Starbucks can generate more interest from consumers who feel the need to buy one right away or risk missing their chance altogether.
Of course, a good dose of sugar, caffeine and whipped cream make the whole PSL experience a lot sweeter. But it’s hard to imagine any other Starbucks drink achieving the ubiquity of the PSL, which has seemingly become part of the fall experience itself. By giving the drink a seasonal meaning, Starbucks injects both emotion and urgency into its premiere drink offering. Combined with an aggressive social media campaign, it’s a marketing message that’s hard to ignore.