Pumpkin spice, the unofficial flavor of autumn. Some people think it tastes like pumpkin and some people think it tastes like a scented candle. But it wasn’t always this way. We can probably single out Starbucks as the starter of this trend, first releasing their famous Pumpkin Spice Latte back in 2003. It was developed the previous year in 2002, when Starbucks wanted another successful seasonal beverage on par with their Gingerbread Latte and Peppermint Mocha. But the Pumpkin Spice Latte did not reach its peak popularity until 2012. According to NPD Group, a food technology firm, its rise in popularity was partially due to the #PSL , a hashtag for Pumpkin Spice Lattes which was created that year. Also in 2012, Dunkin Donuts released a variety of pumpkin-flavored items, including their version of the Pumpkin Spice Latte. In 2013, McDonald’s jumped on the bandwagon and started selling its McCafé Pumpkin Spice Latte. So that is how the trend started, but not all trends last this long. Years later, we have even more pumpkin spice items available to us, including Pumpkin Spice Oreos, Pumpkin Spice Dog Treats, Pumpkin Spice Protein Powder, Pumpkin Spice Cream Cheese, etc. So why has this trend stuck for five years at this point? I do not know, but there are a few scientific theories that could help explain its popularity.
The first reason is the fact that pumpkin spice is only offered for limited time. There is a reason that Starbucks specifically wanted to have a new seasonal drink as opposed to one that is offered year round. Basically, when we think that we will be unable to have something, that makes us desire it more. This is called reactance theory, and it is implemented by marketing campaigns all the time. Every time you see a commercial that says “limited time only” or sales that last for two days or even a seasonal beverage, that is an implementation of reactance theory.
Another reason for pumpkin spice’s popularity is nostalgia. When Starbucks was testing flavors back in 2002, the team developing the drinks put fallen leaves and pumpkins into their lab for inspiration. They wanted to make a drink that people would associate with autumn, similar to how we associate changing leaves, warm scarves, Halloween, apple picking, etc. Assigning value to something, in this case the season of fall to a drink, invokes a sense of nostalgia in a person. Nostalgia has been shown to improve one’s mood and make a person more willing to see themselves positively. So similarly to how the Gingerbread Latte reminds us of the holiday season, the Pumpkin Spice Latte reminds us of fall time.
The last reason I’ll talk about is social conformity. The pumpkin spice trend really took off after the creation of #PSL. After that, Instagram and Pinterest feeds everywhere were filled with Pumpkin Spice Lattes. The more people you know who are obsessed with pumpkin spice, the more likely you are to get interested in it as well and conform to the group. This happens because we have an innate desire to feel secure within a group. Even if you do not have a direct tie with someone who likes pumpkin spice, society as a whole has accepted pumpkin spice as a norm. Just ten years ago, a person drinking a pumpkin beverage was anomalous and now, it is strange to meet a person who hasn’t heard of a Pumpkin Spice Latte.
So that is how we got here, drinking, eating, and sometimes breathing pumpkin spice. Whether you love it or hate it, it looks like pumpkin spice is sticking around.
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