Writer: Tatiana Yakovleva
Designer: Jericho Krueger
How did you celebrate your 20th birthday? I, for one, spent mine studying huddled over my notes and sipping on Buckley’s cough syrup (my heart goes out to fellow November and December babies).
The Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte, or PSL as friends call her, went all out for hers this year. Ranging from sold-out apparel collaborations to celebratory advertisements, this beloved acronym has appeared just about everywhere in the fall of 2023. Even though one latte would cost you around $7, the pumpkin spice industry has grown to $511 million as of 2019. Why does this flavour have so much power that it determines when fall officially starts?
Even though the Starbucks drink is a member of Gen Z, the flavour mix itself is a baby boomer. Pumpkin spice was originally a spice mix for pumpkin pie that first hit the shelves in the 1950s as a convenient option for bakers. (Long gone were the ancient days of buying cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger separately—capitalism truly breeds innovation.) Throughout the decades that followed, the spice mix made its way to other dishes and baked goods, solidifying itself as a fall staple. (See the 2022 fall issue of Link for a mouthwatering Pumpkin Spice Scone recipe!)
On October 10, 2003, Starbucks tested out the PSL prototype as a seasonal drink at select locations, including Vancouver, BC. At the time of the testing, customers preferred caramel and mocha flavours to pumpkin, casting doubt on the projected success of the drink. Nevertheless, Starbucks took a chance on the underdog gourd and introduced the PSL to its regular seasonal line. The risk paid off when the PSL gained substantial popularity by 2006. Even more so, 2012 sales of the drink outperformed all expectations, creating shortages across numerous locations. The seasonal (and influential) nature of the drink is even reflected in the current market, with Starbucks stock prices increasing by 4.56% in the week following the August 24 fall menu launch.
But why did Starbucks launch the fall menu so early? Though some claim that the quick trend turnaround of social media is to blame for the hasty launch, it is not the only factor up against the beloved latte. For one, the market is heavily saturated with pumpkin spice things. With up to 3,000 versions of the flavour available throughout the year, one can truly get lost in the spice. Starbucks could have also deployed a hasty launch to overcompensate for a 1.5%-unit sale drop in one year. The PSL is their “golden goose” after all, so it would make sense to deploy it in a time of crisis.
However, it remains a question of whether Starbucks will continue to depend on the PSL for long. Gen Z is approaching adulthood and is slowly gaining purchasing power. With it, the drink can lose its crown in the next few years, as it is unlikely that many “zoomers” will consider a drink older than them a go-to treat. Some of them don’t even remember how iconic the 2014 PSL craze was! For one, it served as the inspiration for a parody of Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” (for the young souls and/or historians of the future, parodies were very popular on YouTube back in 2014).
“So get to groovin’. I like what that barista’s doin’. It’s like my life’s improvin’ now that I have my sweet frothy Pumpkin Spice!”
But lest we ponder on the future of the pumpkin spice while we can enjoy it in the moment. Who knows? Maybe another seasonal drink will sweep us off our feet soon.