#Basic? Try Brilliant. What You Can Learn from Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte
See how the coffee giant crafted a drink with a cult-like following
Ah, crisp air, chunky sweaters and spooky movies — it’s officially fall. And while most wouldn’t consider the first of September the season’s official start, for coffee drinkers, autumn can’t come soon enough. Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte has remained fall’s favorite accessory since its invention in 2003. Since then, the infamous drink has become a pop culture icon, adopting a slick nickname (PSL) and its own social media accounts. Love it or hate it, with over 350 million cups sold in the U.S. alone since its debut, there’s a reason the drink is here to stay. We’ll break down Starbucks’ “pumpkin spice and everything nice” marketing strategy to see how you can apply these tactics to your brands.
Spice up social media
The first thing you might notice about the PSL is that Starbucks doesn’t have to do much by way of paid advertising. Born into a millennial world, the brand immediately connected with drinkers on social media. When the PSL launched, they ran a contest to see which city would get to sip on the autumnal brew first, and in doing so, generated a sizeable buzz. For its 10 year anniversary, Starbucks released a special code on Facebook let people purchase the drink before the official launch date. These social media tactics even spurred the creation of the PSL hashtag, which has over 56.8 million tweets, and counting. For communication pros, it’s important to utilize social media campaigns to your advantage. Like the PSL, think about ways you can incorporate your message into a post that asks your users to interact with your brand in real life — you might just start the next trending hashtag.
Tell a story
Good content marketers know that using social media isn’t just about throwing in a random hashtag and hoping for results — it’s about telling your brand’s story. Starbucks has taken this tactic to heart, creating a PSL product-character with its own Twitter and Instagram handles (found at, where else, @TheRealPSL). The PSL has also earned social media staying power because it isn’t just a cute cup with a flashy Twitter page, the social team relies on their consumers to tell a story. The latte’s platform is where consumers go to hear about the drink’s return to stores, share their stories and interact with the cup’s selfies in orange sunglasses as it enjoys a bevy of fall activities.
The PSL’s personality is so tied to its social media presence that the two are basically synonymous — and the brand is reveling in their internet fame. Currently, the PSL has over 100,000 thousand followers on Twitter and over 37,000 on Instagram. For communications pros, leveraging your brand’s story on social media can help boost awareness. Think about your target audience. Do they expect you to retweet them and make references to popular television shows? Even brands that aren’t as outgoing as the PSL can learn from the drink’s engagement: PSL usually responds to or interacts with their consumers by relating to their personal fall stories.
Use nostalgia and exclusivity
Part of how PSL relates to its customers is through good, old-fashioned nostalgia. Pumpkin itself has a lot of ties to life’s happier moments — carving pumpkins or going to a pumpkin patch are activities that families and friends often share together. Even though Starbucks was initially unsure if the PSL would be successful, they counted on the flavor’s psychological associations to pull through, and they did. Think about how you can utilize consumers’ responses to generate awareness for your brand, whether that’s taking stock of the time of year or centering your message around common generational activities. This tactic can prove useful if you want to create content that will connect with your audience to make your communication strategies feel genuine.
Another important part of PSL’s strategy is its exclusivity. Because the drink is on sale for a limited amount of time, the brand generates organic anticipation as people wait for September to roll around. The PSL’s Twitter account has even leveraged this air of rarity by creating the Orange Sleeve Society, a “secret” club that offers a knit sleeve to all PSL-lovers who sign up. Using a social media strategy that reframes your brand’s offerings in a “one-time-only” light can help create a sense of urgency and foster engagement. Think about the ways you can use this timeliness in your brand’s message, whether through a promotion or a call to action.
While everyone might not be on board the PSL train, there are plenty of good marketing and social strategies used by the coffee giant’s favorite flavor that justifies their cult following. By applying a little bit of pumpkin spice to your message, you can bring in results that will have your team making a Starbucks run.