- It’s that time of year: pumpkin spice season is here.
- Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte kicked off a pumpkin spice economy, with millennials leading the way.
- Love it or hate it, pumpkin spice is a cultural icon here to stay thanks to the power of exclusivity and nostalgia.
Syrup. Fig Bars. Hot Chocolate. Pancakes.
They’re all part of the pumpkin spice economy that famously began with Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL). Whether you love it or love to hate it, what was once a trend has become a fall icon.
Since introducing the PSL in 2003, the coffee chain had sold 424 million PSLs worldwide as of 2019. Starting at $5.25 a cup, that’s more than $2.2 billion in revenue. Such success has sparked copycat lattes by competitors like Dunkin’ Donuts and Tim Hortons, pumpkin spice-flavored products at stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, and even non-food pumpkin spice items like candles and hand sanitizer, transforming the flavor into both a $500 million annual industry and a season.
But pumpkin spice didn’t really become a phenomenon until the last decade. As digital savvy consumers took to Twitter and Instagram to share their affinity for the PSL, it quickly gained a reputation as the autumnal version of avocado toast for millennials.
Dozens of articles, hundreds of memes, and thousands of Tweets associated the PSL with a “basic” white girl millennial. Look no further than the PSL’s shoutout in Bustle’s “How to Spot a Basic Bitch” or even millennials mocking themselves with Tweets like “common white girl #PSL.”
-Parks and rec (@_PWHITT) October 17, 2013
Hating on the pumpkin spice trend had become a trend of its own. Some have even called the demise of pumpkin spice as far back as 2015, but six years later, it’s retained a powerful foothold in the autumnal lexicon. For all the stereotypes millennials get for the PSL, they propelled a food revolution with a broad appeal that has become deeply embedded in American culture.
A picture-perfect drink is born
Pumpkin spice – typically a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, and cloves – has actually been around for over two centuries. It first appeared in a “pompkin” pie recipe featured in a 1798 reprint of “American Cookery.” By the 1930s, spice manufacturing companies like McCormick had introduced their own blends.
But Starbucks ushered in a whole new era. Director of Espresso Peter Dukes was on a mission to recreate the success of Starbucks’ limited edition winter drinks like Peppermint Mocha for fall. He thought he found something special because “there wasn’t anything around pumpkin at the time,” he told The Daily Meal back in 2013.
They rolled the PSL out as a test at 100 stores in 2003, debuting it nationwide in 2004. That October, company sales increased by 11% compared to the year prior thanks in large part to the PSL, according to local publication SeattleMet. But it was social media advancements in the 2010s that really made pumpkin spice blow up.
Starbucks was targeting the social-media-using millennial with disposable income, Kara Nielsen, director of food and drink at trend forecasting company WGSN, told Insider. As part of this strategy, it launched an official Twitter account and Instagram for the PSL.
Past generations didn’t grow up with Starbucks, Nielsen added, and millennials were frequenting Starbucks and developing a latte habit. They also had started carrying around phones and proven themselves to be consumers interested in trying new things. “This wasn’t the target of a coffee connoisseur really looking forward to an exceptional coffee experience,” she said.
Millennials easily succumbed to the magic of a limited time offer, which created a sense of urgency and exclusivity. While this marketing strategy is a popular tactic, Nielsen said, it was especially enticing to young adults who would post pictures of themselves enjoying the PSL on social media. This publicized pumpkin spice, making it even more of a frenzy.
And so the pumpkin spice economy was born, all from a flavored special drink that Nielsen says has become part of many people’s identity and part of a seasonal performance.
The power of comfort and nostalgia
Nearly 20 years later, the novelty factor of pumpkin spice is long gone. The appeal now lies in a sense of comfort.
This dates back to the 2008 financial crisis, when pumpkin became part of the comfort food trend of the Great Recession. It was during the recession’s recovery that it began to move into “a more experimental realm,” Suzy Badaracco, a chef who runs food trend forecasting company Culinary Tides, told Vox back in 2014.
It’s popularity hasn’t always been consistent, seeming to have peaked in 2017, according to Google search trends. But Nielsen said the pandemic has only strengthened pumpkin spice’s comfort attribute, cementing it as a permanent fixture in American society. Returning to pre-pandemic routines like picking up a PSL on a crisp fall morning, she said, gives people a sense of normalcy that they’re so desperately craving.
That comfort is linked to nostalgia, which people have been seeking during the pandemic. Recent research from Johns Hopkins University found that pumpkin spice’s popularity lies in its smell, which is the strongest sense to trigger powerful memories. The scent of pumpkin spice evokes cozy, autumnal memories. Even knowing that your drink or food is pumpkin spice revs up the brain, telling it to anticipate the smell and helping us perceive the taste more distinctly.
-𝐀𝐮 𝐧𝐨𝐦 𝐝𝐞 𝐥’𝐚𝐫𝐭. (@aunomdelart) October 11, 2021
Jason Fischer, a JHU professor of psychological and brain sciences and one of the researchers behind the study, told Insider that nostalgia for pumpkin spice is stronger than other flavor and aroma combinations because of the “whimsical feeling of familiarity” that it summons up. It’s a “feeling that has been built up over the years as pumpkin spice products emerge to mark the change of the season,” he said.
Fischer noted that the perception of pumpkin spice as a millennial drink may be based more on a social narrative than actual buying habits. But nostalgia could be more potent for the generation, he added, since science shows we form stronger associations between odors and memories earlier in life.
“For someone who has spent a large portion of their life experiencing the seasonal pumpkin spice craze year after year, the link between pumpkin spice and fond memories of fall is bound to be especially strong,” he said.
What began as a millennial drink has ultimately become a cultural marker both beloved and reviled, that’s launched an entire industry and a more experiential food economy. Nielsen said pumpkin spice has added to the richness of American food culture in a way that didn’t exist 20 years ago, with brands working to create unique, seasonal flavors like spiced pear or salted maple.
As for pumpkin spice itself, Nielsen said, “It may not always be the most popular, but it’s place in history is secure.”