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How Starbucks turned the pumpkin spice latte into a lifestyle brand

Nicole Goodkind
Nicole Goodkind

September 8th marks a big day for lovers of flavored coffee drinks. The iconic pumpkin spice latte (or “PSL”) is officially back at Starbucks (SBUX). That means your social media feeds will no longer be filled with beach selfies; they’ll now be flooded by friends bemoaning the proliferation of pumpkin-spiced everything.

Starbucks (SBUX) has sold well over 200 million pumpkin spice lattes since the drink’s introduction in 2003. It’s the company’s No. 1 one selling seasonal drink of all time, and Starbucks claims that the “first sip of pumpkin spice latte signals the onset of the fall season.” And this year Starbucks announced it will use real pumpkin in its drink this year. Panera has said it will do the same.

Since Starbucks began marketing pumpkin spice 12 years ago the flavor has soared in popularity and introduced a wave of pumpkin-flavored foods. Dunkin Donuts (DNKN) and Panera (PNRA) have their own versions of the drink. Hershey’s Kisses (HSY) now come in a limited edition pumpkin spice flavor, as do Mars’ M&Ms. You can buy pumpkin spice Milano cookies from Pepperidge Farm and Nestle Toll House pumpkin spice cookie dough and chocolate chips. Coffee Mate and Kellogg’s (K) have also created limited-edition pumpkin spice flavors. Even Oreo has created a special cookie to honor the pumpkin and all the spices associated with it. Sales of pumpkin-flavored beer have grown more than 1,500% in the past 10 years, according to Nielsen.

But the pumpkin spice latte means more than coffee spiked with pumpkin and cinnamon. What started as a drink has now come to represent a certain fall-centric lifestyle that Starbucks has sought to promote. The company created official Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr accounts for the pumpkin spice latte in 2014, and has dedicated manpower and resources to fill these accounts with pictures of an anthropomorphic pumpkin spice latte wearing sweaters and sunglasses on what appears to be a college campus. The officlal PSL Twitter account currently has 106,000 followers. This year, Starbucks used Twitter and Tumblr to create the "#PSLFanPass" which gave big fans early access to the drink via a secret code released on social media.

The Starbucks team carefully crafted the pumpkin spice latte social media personality. For example, the team decided to treat the PSL as a celebrity after noticing people who followed the drink also followed more celebrities than the average social media user.  The team also decided that the PSL would tweet in first-person.

Last year the pumpkin spice latte won a Shorty Award, an award that honors the best of social media, for best Tumblr account, and was a finalist for best Twitter account.

Perhaps because of its popularity, drinking pumpkin spice lattes has become one of the trademarks of someone who is, in American pop culture terms, “basic.” Originally coined by a comedian, the term is used to describe someone with mainstream tastes. And it seems the coffee giant's PSL-dedicated social feeds are an attempt to get in on the joke. While they never reference the term directly, they post photos and tweets (like the one above) that are clearly poking fun at the stereotype. In 2014 Buzzfeed published a listicle of what “basic girls” do in the fall. “Get on that pumpkin spice latte grind,” was first on the list. The top definition of pumpkin spice latte on UrbanDictionary.com is “A drink from Starbucks that many…girls drink during the fall while dressed in boots (typically Uggs), yoga pants (or leggings of some sort), and a jacket.”

When Yahoo Finance asked people on the streets of New York what they thought of pumpkin spice latte drinkers, we were given the same answers: College-age girls who wear Uggs, North Face fleeces, sunglasses and yoga pants. (But clearly, the PSL's fan base reaches far beyond the college student demographic -- otherwise, it wouldn't have become a top seller at Starbucks.)

Whether or not the stereotype rings true, the pumpkin spice latte has come to embody something bigger than just a coffee drink, it’s become part of the cultural zeitgeist, and for that Starbucks should be proud.