It’s 2020: Why Is The Pumpkin Spice Latte Still Part Of The Zeitgeist?
It’s been 17 years since Starbucks first introduced the PSL. Here’s how the drink managed to stay relevant, despite ~everything~.
Never mind that we’re still deep in the sweltering depths of summer, the simple idea of woolen sweaters and scarves enough to give us hives. Or that a global pandemic is upending lives, ravaging the economy, and keeping people indoors. Even now, savvy as we have become about being gaslit or lied to, food purveyors are trying to convince us there is a distinct nip in the air and the soft crunch of foliage underfoot.
And what better way to embrace sweater weather than by mainlining cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice?
Starbucks, the ur-purveyor of the Pumpkin Spice Latte, is dropping the seasonal offering today, almost a month before the official start of fall, embracing the “pumpkin creep” that has pushed the drink up the calendar with every permutation. 7-Eleven plans deploy its pumpkin-flavored coffee —“easily [its] most successful flavored hot beverage,” Jacob Barnes, its senior product director for proprietary beverages, said in a statement — as early as Sept. 2. Dunkin’ Donuts is already offering a full cornucopia of pumpkin-flavored coffee and espresso beverages, pumpkin-spiced drinks, pumpkin-infused bakery treats to bring Americans the “familiar and favorite flavors of the season...earlier than before,” it touted in a press release.
Despite a pandemic, wild cultural shifts, a backlash to “Becky habits,” and an increase in negative press about Starbucks in the wake of Black Lives Matter, the PSL, as its aficionados refer to it, has maintained its relevance even after the upheaval of the past six months. The answer, it turns out, has everything to do with all the reasons the public should be over a drink that’s already enjoyed a 17-year position within the zeitgeist.
One of the faithful counting down the hours is Marshall Robin, 51, a game developer from Santa Monica, Calif., who starts throwing back PSLs as soon as Starbucks starts selling them. “Because it's only offered around Thanksgiving, I associate it with that time of year,” he says. “I’m fond of that time of year, so naturally my good feelings about it rub off on the PSL. Also, it tastes good.” The pandemic is unlikely to alter his consumption. “We've definitely cut back on a lot of shopping, but we do go out and grab a Starbucks drink multiple times a week,” Robin says about his household.
Others see pumpkin spice season as another indignity — engineered by food laboratories and honed by consumer focus groups — to be dealt with after five months of COVID-19 chaos, anti-racism backlash, and government incompetence. Take the flavor's central promise: that it's made with pumpkin. A lie! Pumpkin-spice products rarely contain actual pumpkin. In fact, until 2015, Starbucks’ PSL was completely pumpkin-free.
“I tend to think that if someone orders a pumpkin spice anything, there is a chance that they are either buying into the hype or following the herd, rather than choosing a flavor they actually like,” grouses Sharon Colchamiro, 59, a lawyer who lives in Tenafly, N.J.
Of course, Starbucks didn’t invent the pumpkin spice flavor. McCormick first portioned and consolidated the spices used in pumpkin pie, aptly labeling the blend “pumpkin pie spice” in 1934, as a time saver for harried home bakers. (The company also sells “apple pie spice,” though it doesn’t appear to have caught on in the same way.)
What Starbucks did in January 2003 was bounce pumpkin spice from baking to beverages.“It reinvented the use of the flavor,” says Suzy Badaracco, who runs the food forecasting think tank Culinary Tides. “Before [pumpkin spice] went into a product like coffee, nobody used it as a marketing term because it was a one-trick pony that you would use during the holidays to make a pie. But then it became part of a viral marketing campaign, and then — boom, it grew into an [annual] event.”
Once those traditional boundaries were breached, everything was up for grabs: dog biscuits, hummus, yogurt, energy bars, potato chips, even Spam. Starbucks clambered back onto its own bandwagon in 2019, introducing the Pumpkin Cream cold brew, perhaps in acknowledgement that not everyone is ready to break out their scarves when it’s pushing past 90 degrees in parts of the country. According to Nielsen data, annual sales of pumpkin spice-flavored products in 2019 totaled nearly $512 million. Among a lucrative cottage industry, Starbucks' PSL remains the prized cash cow. The coffee behemoth has sold nearly 424 million PSLs in the United States since its debut, a phenomenon that’s been met with equal parts devotion and derision.
More recently, the PSL is associated with a very specific stereotype: the so-called “basic” (read: mainstream and unoriginal) white girl who trots out phrases like “It’s fall, y’all” without irony. She lives, laughs, and loves with wild abandon (#blessed #grateful #thankgourditsfall).
The PSL is one of those rare inventions — like athleisure, fast-casual dining, or rosé — to ascend the ranks from consumer trend to cultural touchstone, variously serving as a vehicle for brewing anxieties about class and geography. The backlash also carries more than a whiff of casual misogyny, as if anything coded feminine is worthy only of dismissal or withering disdain.
Mary Landrum, 46, a children’s librarian from Lexington, Ky., shrugs off the mostly good-natured ribbing from family and friends. “If people are going to make fun of me for liking pumpkin spice lattes, that's their business,” she says. “I’m a middle-class white woman. My life is pretty easy. If the worst thing somebody can do is mock me for drinking the PSL, I’ve had a pretty good day overall.”
For Landrum, a fall lover with a sweet tooth, the PSL can be a pick-me-up after a challenging day serving an under-resourced neighborhood. “We all need brain candy; we all need a respite,” she says. Starting at $4.95 for the Starbucks version, the PSL is an affordable luxury, like the issue of People she occasionally buys. “If I know today is going to be kind of challenging, I’m going to get a Pumpkin Spice Latte to pep up my mood and get me through it,” Landrum adds. With COVID-19 cases spiking in parts of the country, and the imminent threat of further lockdowns and quarantines, challenging has become our status quo.
Starbucks sells the PSL in 50 countries, but its almost obsessive popularity is unique to the United States, not only because of the American deep-seated tradition of worshipping bright orange gourds when the weather turns crisp, but also because the combination of spices tickles the part of the brain where emotional memories linked to pumpkin picking, hay rides, and family gatherings are stored.
“A lot of what we think of as flavor is actually odor perception,” says Jessica Gaby, an assistant professor of psychology at Middle Tennessee State University who also has a background in food science. “You’re triggering these past positive memories — the feeling of fall or sweaters, if you like sweaters — and so just picking up a drive-through latte might make you feel as though you’ve had a positive experience beyond drinking the coffee.”
And if there’s one thing people are craving right now, it’s to feel calm and grounded; pumpkin spice — familiar, reliable, and not overbearing — does exactly what you expect it do. Starbucks itself may be counting on the PSL to rescue its battered sales amid shuttered stores, evaporated foot traffic, and shrinking discretionary spending. Last month, the coffee chain reported a third-quarter net loss of $678.4 million, nosediving from a net income of $1.37 billion the same time last year. Starbucks has also been dogged by allegations of worker abuse and discrimination of immigrant, trans, and Black baristas. A recent survey found that 45% of consumers are less likely to make a purchase at the retailer because of its initial decision — since recanted — that barred employees from wearing apparel that supports Black Lives Matter. Starbucks declined to comment on sales figures, though a spokeswoman wrote in an email that the company knows its customers are “looking for small moments of joy in their day, and [it looks] forward to bringing them [its] fall menu later this season.”
The outlook may not be as rosy as it hopes. While sales of the PSL at Starbucks grew 99% year over year in 2009, according to online research firm 1010data, the coffee giant has been steadily ceding ground as the market becomes more crowded.
Indeed, in recent years, the PSL has become less of a draw for Starbucks devotees. In 2018, unique visits to Starbucks were 2% lower for the 30 days after the drink’s release, compared with the 30 days prior, according to Gravy Analytics, which measures consumer foot traffic. In 2019, unique visits ticked up a mere 8%. “The data doesn’t lie. Visits to Starbucks over the past two years reveal consumer fatigue with the PSL,” says Jeff White, CEO of Gravy Analytics. “The iconic drink doesn’t move the needle for stores in a significant way, and that's unlikely to change this year.”
Matthew Barry, beverage consultant for Euromonitor International, a market research firm, sees hope for the PSL yet. “What does fall in the United States mean? It means back to school, it means football, it means Halloween. And all of that just isn’t happening right now or it’s happening in a radically different way,” he says. “But what is still happening? The Pumpkin Spice Latte. It’s that one thing that still manages to thrive, untouched by the pandemic. A lot of things are going to be scary and uncertain this fall, but the pumpkin spice latte is going to be the same it’s always been.”
Starbucks is capitalizing the PSL’s feel-good connotations with a “PSL hotline” (1-833-GET-FALL), launched yesterday, that will bathe your ears in the soundscapes of fall. Options include “head out on a hayride,” “hear ‘flannel’ on repeat,” “lovely leaf-crunching stroll,” and “knit sweaters with Grandpa.” Delish describes it as “basically ASMR for PSL super-fans.”
One thing Kaitlyn Facista, 28, a podcaster and blogger from Indianapolis, would like to see less of this year, is snobbery over the PSL. “Can we all agree to simply let people enjoy their pumpkin spice this year even though you think it’s gross?” she posted on Twitter earlier this month to a response of 4.6K likes and 972 retweets. “2020 has been hard enough, man. Let the people have their flavor.”