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The Legacy of the PSL: How Starbucks marketed the cult drink of the decade.

8th of November 2018

Over time, the notorious Pumpkin Spiced Latte has become synonymous with autumn. Throughout a treacherous and unrelenting summer we’ve all been dreaming of the days of turtleneck jumpers, streets adorned in red, brown and orange as the leaves dance to the ground, guilt free weekends in bed, and of course, the Pumpkin Spiced Latte. Here we’ll discuss how Starbucks created the hot beverage that defines a season, a feeling, and a generation – and how you can do the same for your product.

Can we just be honest? Pumpkin doesn’t taste great. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it should be classed more as a seasonal toy than a food. And it stinks. But consumers don’t buy pumpkin spiced lattes for the taste (thank God), they buy them for the Instagram, for the celebration, and for the feeling of being part of something. And to have a bank of consumers waiting to buy into your brand purely to be part of the narrative? That’s good marketing.

Of course, Starbucks knew that the taste of pumpkin wasn’t crazily popular; if it was, people would find a way to eat it all year round, like avocado. And of course, they presumably have taste buds. But they’ve used this fact to their advantage in two ways:

  • It’s not an obvious go to – it’s hard to walk down a high street for more than 5 minutes without tripping over a sign advertising that some quirky coffee shop or other now offers a flat white. But where else can you get a PSL besides Starbucks? Nowhere; because it isn’t about the taste, it’s about the process of going to Starbucks and getting your PSL in your Starbucks cup and taking a picture with it and hashtagging it #PSLForLife. Starbucks have trademarked the Pumpkin Spice in the most authentic and powerful way, it’s irreplicable.

 

  • It’s a niche – The PSL contradicts itself in a way. It’s a different kind of drink, it’s quirky and seasonal and largely an acquired (forced) taste. This works, because people – millennials, in particular – love to love the unpopular taste. That indie band that went viral by fluke? I’ve been listening to them for years. Those unreadable books by that writer who’s only good for making your bookshelf look better? I’ll quote them for my latest Instagram caption. And yes, I really did inherit these corduroy dungarees from my mum when she was a teen. I absolutely did not buy them from Topshop.

 

The first and most longwearing tactic that Starbucks used here was to really get to know their audience, and consistently target them. The PSL has its own social channels mostly dedicated to interacting with its demographic. They don’t just put content out there – it’s mostly about liking tweets, replying in character…making a persona out of the PSL. And it’s a persona that millennials will fall in love with. They’ve curated a sassy, witty, self-deprecating character that perfectly aligns with millennials interests, and tapped them on the shoulder with it one by one.

Secondly, they’ve offered an experience rather than a brand. In the PSL, consumers get the chance to taste autumn. They partake in the countdown to PSL season on social media and in store, and they get the chance to be excited for something. It marks the beginning of the holiday season; of Halloween, bonfire night, Christmas and wholesome days spent pumpkin picking (another thing that people do purely for Instagram, but who are we to judge)

The brand thrives on exclusivity. You can have it – but only where and when Starbucks decides that you can. It’s instantly recognisable and it’s even got a little nickname. No self-respecting millennial would dare to say ‘what?’ when someone said they were going for a PSL. It’s just one of those things that we know. It’s in our blood – like memes and student debt. It’s for us, not the grownups. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t stand the taste of pumpkin. But did I buy a PSL the second I saw that it was available at Starbs, take a picture and post it on social with the caption ‘It’s time’? Of course I did.

Words: Amy Cully Steele


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