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September 06, 2017

How much of the pumpkin craze is just marketing?

'Infrequently Asked Questions' seeks the answer

Most of us know the drill by now: Once the threshold of September is crossed, supermarkets, coffee shops and beer distributors are infiltrated by an army of pumpkin-flavored products.

And most of us live for it. 

But, despite the bliss of sipping a pumpkin spice latte for the first time in nearly a year, it's worth posing the cynical thought: How much of this craze is genuine desire, versus sheer marketing brilliance? Eager to glean some insight, we reached out to Lu Lu, assistant professor for Temple University's School of Sports, Tourism and Hospitality Management, and an instructor of a food and beverage management course who's also conducted research on purchase behaviors.

Pumpkin popularity feels like a "chicken or the egg" situation. Pumpkin has blown up in the past few years, even though it's not a new flavor--people have been eating pumpkin pie for eons. Do we know, from the perspective of food marketing, if the hype is reflecting demand already there or have food marketers really moved the needle on pumpkin sales?

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Well, this is based on my personal observation, but definitely, the pumpkin trend has been growing a lot, and it's not just in coffee. If you look at total sales of pumpkin, the data from 2011 to now, it's close to $1 million in sales going up every year, and of course with Starbucks, their pumpkin spice latte has a big impact on the sales. So, I think it's getting more and more interesting. Is it the consumer pushing the market or the market directing consumers to buy more pumpkin spice products? 

I think, from a consumer perspective, it's because pumpkin spice is seasonal. It reminds you of holidays and families; it has that component. And I think what happened with Starbucks, in 2003, they did a good job on flavor, too. But it is seasonal. That is a [main] factor. 

When it comes to talking about marketing concepts, it's fear of loss. People don't want to miss out. And a new beverage getting popular, we know that social influence and social norms have a really big influence on people's behavior. I think all this put together, it grew. If you look at all the data about the latte, just from last year when it went up a lot--the trend is not going to slow down. But also, because of its use with other food categories, using pumpkin spice everywhere, it's getting more mundane. It's not that exciting anymore. So, probably, it's a good strategy [for food companies] to not only use it seasonally but pay attention to upcoming trends. For example, in the market, there's another coffee flavor in maple that's getting very popular. Sales are up. Looking at data from last year, there's big growth; more, I think, than pumpkin spice. 

Anyhow, it's something similar. If you look at drivers for new flavors, they tie to our values, family values, seasons and new twists on an old flavor ...

It does seem like there's a push every year for a new, trendy fall flavor. But nothing's stuck. So maple might be the next one?

Dunkin' Donuts is delving into the maple flavor. Yeah, definitely. I mean, from a food marketing perspective, you can't just--consumers are becoming adventurous and want to try new stuff. But I think now that consumers are getting more educated, they want to know what's in their products; it's not only about the flavor, but also the meaning behind it. Stories. And other marketing keys like a limited-time offer.

You had mentioned fear of loss. Something interesting about pumpkin is that when I think about it, I wouldn't say my knowledge of it being out has anything to do with seeing a physical or TV ad. It's social media. How has that played into its popularity?

I think that plays a big role. And there are some challenges [with that]. This year, Starbucks put the pumpkin spice latte out earlier but also at different times and locations. There are a lot of complaints from customers that "We're not getting PSL," but others do [and it causes misinformation].

But yeah, [pumpkin spice won't] slow down and it just takes a lot of effort for this pumpkin spice movement to stay. To watch your rivals and also not really abuse it. Especially other food product categories. I think for the beverage industry, if you do the flavor year-round, it's challenging to see the trend keep coming up because the fear of loss isn't there anymore...

Are other companies finding success with other food options? I see 12 different pumpkin options for cereal when I go to the grocery store. Is that successful or just bandwagoning and hoping for some small return?

Looking at cereal products, we relate it to health and wellness and things like that. And definitely, if the market pursues that flavor, they need to be sure to add real pumpkin puree. If it's just added flavors--I can see from other food companies, they tend to make a twist to add that value on top of the trend to make it stay. Like adding real pumpkin.

You really just have to make it different. I don't think it will work for everything. And also, it's hard for consumers to accept a brand-new, novel flavor. It's easy for them to accept this flavor into other food products. People already know it might taste good. Definitely what we'll [continue to] see is a lot of is pumpkin in ice cream, beer, chocolate.

What have food marketers learned from the advent of PSL? Have they been able to apply it to other seasons?

Maybe something to take away from this is to watch needs and wants and demand for pumpkin spice, and maybe when thinking about introducing a new flavor to the market, consider if it is the taste, the story, the meaning or the marketing [that's making it popular]. I think it's a blend of all of them. 

And maybe keep renovating your recipe. If you're going for pumpkin spice, try for something more--next time, using the real pumpkin. It's a concept of adding more on top of that, offering an authentic experience. And especially with local food marketing, people becoming more health-concerned, maybe make it relate with that kind of psychology. 

And keeping an eye on another flavor that may have very similar competitive advantages as pumpkin--like maple.