The beginning of September in the United States seems to mean that fall is upon us. But make no mistake, this is not the fall that’s marked by changing leaves and chillier temperatures—that’s still a few weeks away in most regions, at least.
Rather, the fall that has already arrived is one that seems to creep up on consumers earlier and earlier with each passing year: the season of bulk Halloween candy, orange-hued greeting cards and, of course, the annual return of all things pumpkin spice. Just how did that humble spice mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger become the fall flavor, dominating seasonal menus across American restaurants and evolving to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars each season?
Below, Ad Age has compiled answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about pumpkin spice marketing as we head into yet another autumn.
When did the pumpkin spice ‘craze’ begin?
The golden age of pumpkin spice—the one we’re currently living in—can be traced to 2003, when pioneer Starbucks introduced what is arguably the most ubiquitous fall beverage in history: the Pumpkin Spice Latte. Known simply as the PSL among its fans, the whipped cream-topped drink saw massive demand from the very beginning. Early test markets couldn’t keep the PSL’s ingredients in stock, and it quickly became a sweater weather staple at Starbucks locations across the country (even though it didn’t contain any real pumpkin until 2015). But pumpkin spice itself isn’t a new invention; in fact, the earliest known reference to a similar “pompkin” spice mixture can be found in a centuries-old cookbook first published when George Washington was president.
Is pumpkin as popular as other seasonal flavors?
Seasonal coffees and other products have outgrown their role as a novel trend, evolving over the past two decades to become an annual cycle that carries serious financial firepower for Starbucks, Dunkin’ and other brands. The Pumpkin Spice Latte “is one of Starbucks’ most popular seasonal beverages of all time,” according to a company spokesperson, having sold more than 500 million units in the 18 full seasons since its ’03 introduction.
How much money is spent on pumpkin items annually?
At least half a billion dollars in the U.S. In 2019, pumpkinflavored products across the grocery category brought in $511 million, up 4.7% from the previous year, according to Nielsen data released just before the COVID-19 pandemic. Coffee chains and restaurants typically don’t release hard sales figures on a product-by-product basis, but let’s work with what we know: Starbucks has sold roughly 500 million PSLs since they debuted in 2003, which is just shy of 28 million each year, on average. Then, assuming the median order is an unmodified Grande PSL, which costs an average of $5.35 in the U.S., we can estimate that Starbucks now grosses somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 million from the PSL every year. Then factor in international revenue, other pumpkin-flavored product sales, competitors’ offerings, and pumpkin spice starts to resemble a $1 billion annual industry.
How many pumpkin-flavored items are released each autumn?
Way more than you might think. While pumpkin spice is most commonly thought of as being a latte flavor, the past decade has seen the fall phenomenon work its way into nearly every imaginable facet of the food and beverage industry. This year alone, U.S. store shelves are being graced with items such as Philadelphia Pumpkin Spice Cream Cheese, Toast Wellness’ pumpkin-infused CBD oil, limited edition Cup Noodles Pumpkin Spice, Jamba’s seasonal Pumpkin Smash Smoothie, and multiple pumpkin-flavored craft beers. Looking beyond pumpkin, Starbucks this year introduced an apple crips macchiato. Dunkin’, which already had a Pumpkin Spiced Latte Ale with Harpoon Brewery, extended that collaboration this year with three new flavors: Blueberry Matcha IPA, Maple Crème Blonde Ale and Midnight American Porter. “Beer, matcha, coffee and donuts, we can’t think of a better combination,” Brian Gilbert, Dunkin’s VP of retail business development, said in a statement.
So, it’s not just the pumpkin latte?
Hardly! In fact, the classic Pumpkin Spice Latte may not even be the dominant fall drink at Starbucks anymore. Two years ago, the chain introduced the Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew, an iced coffee featuring vanilla syrup and pumpkin foam—and it was hit, underscoring the cold coffee trend. It became a recurring feature of Starbucks’ seasonal menu, even outselling the original PSL on a per-unit basis in the U.S. in 2020, according to the company’s fourth-quarter earnings report.
Are fall-related products really arriving earlier each year?
With pumpkin spice, you’re not imagining things. Let’s take Starbucks’ iconic Pumpkin Spice Latte as an example: This year is the earliest that the seasonal drink has ever been released nationwide, rolling out across the chain’s U.S. stores on Aug. 24. That’s one day earlier than the previous release record, Aug. 25, set in 2020, which in turn was one day earlier than the PSL’s 2019 debut on August 26. In 2018, the drink came out on Aug. 28, which was moved up more than a week from 2017, when the PSL’s long-awaited arrival came on Sept. 5.
How long are seasonal products in development before they are released?
A surprisingly long time. The recipes for tried-and-true classics like Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte and Dunkin’s similarly named Pumpkin Spice Signature Latte are already established and can be readily prepared each fall. But when it comes to developing new seasonal menu items (pumpkin or otherwise), the process can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months. In other words, the new drink you’ll be sipping in the fall of 2022 is likely already in the works.
Is pumpkin spice as popular abroad as it is in the U.S.?
Well, kind of. While pumpkin spice as a staple of fall is largely an American tradition, such products—primarily in the coffee sector—have gradually been introduced around the world and have found considerable popularity in some markets. The only catch is it’s almost always multinational chains exporting their U.S. products abroad, with coffee chains based outside of North America rarely implementing such pumpkin-based seasonal menus. Currently, top autumn drink maker Starbucks sells its pumpkin-flavored beverages in markets including Canada, Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean and the Asia-Pacific region.
While pumpkin spice is most commonly thought of as being a latte flavor, the past decade has seen the fall phenomenon work its way into nearly every imaginable facet of the food and beverage industry.