What is it that makes consumers wild for anything Pumpkin Spice?

For some brands, it’s a natural offering. Starbucks ignited the fad with its PSL, an instant and ownable hit.  But what about everyone else?  From Pringles to Pop Tarts, Burt’s Bees to Beer … is Pumpkin Spice the treat or the trick of the season?


Conventional wisdom points to the trifecta of a marketing trick:  Mass Appeal + Limited Availability + Emotional Cache = $$$.

Why’s that the winning trick for Pumpkin Spice?  Well, the flavor appeal is not polarizing like eggnog or coconut. That makes it mainstream enough to drive volume.  The “limited time only” is a long-standing retail play that ignites Pavlovian stampedes.  And the aroma of Pumpkin Spice has a well-known emotional trigger that warms our hearts with childhood memories of the holiday season.

But is that it?  Because if it were, lots of flavors could play that game.  Candy Cane, for example, has broad taste appeal, is a limited holiday flavor, and evokes the emotions of Christmas. So, what does Pumpkin Spice have that Candy Cane, Cranberry Spice, and Christmas Cookies don’t?  Why is Pumpkin Spice a run-away cultural phenomenon?


Brands can learn a lot from how we’ve “humanized” the pumpkin. The emotional connection we have to anything pumpkin far outweighs our connection to its summer counterpart – the watermelon.  And in most cases, the connection to the pumpkin far outweighs our connection to the actual pumpkin-spiced brand.

But why the pumpkin?  Watermelon is certainly a popular flavor, but brands and consumers don’t go ritualistically wild over the coming of the summer beast. It’s the humanization of the gourde that has brands flocking to borrow its equity.  Not only because it hearkens back to childhood memories, but because it connects with us on a level that no other fruit or spice does.

Like humans, and unlike watermelons, the pumpkin is complex. The pumpkin is comforting, yet spooky. Friendly, yet scary. Strong, yet soft. No Valentine’s Day chocolate or Candy Cane can go toe-to-toe with the Pumpkin.  The Pumpkin will always win. He’s been embodied with a spirit that can’t be denied or ever fully captured … only experienced. And one great way we can experience him is when our favorite foods and drinks dress up in their Pumpkin Spice best.

Pumpkin Spice blows in well before the frost, unexpected and surprisingly true to form.  We’re caught off-guard in the bustle of back-to-school, barely noticing the crumbling foliage, but also finding ourselves losing the desire for ice-cold summer cocktails, with no obvious substitute drinks or snacks in mind.

And before we fully realize what’s happening, Pumpkin Spice whisks us away from facing the the sad, end-of-summer blues to emotionally tasting the anticipation of the coming harvest.  Unlike other holiday flavors that come later – Pumpkin Spice is the Homecoming King at the front of the Season’s parade.  He is special.

He’s also hot.  He is the Prince who replaces all Summer Princess’ flip flops with regal Uggs. He’s the first toasty toast to the season. End of Summer?  Who cares!  It’s time for blankets, fires, and cider! Which, of course, naturally gives him an odd romantic quality, despite his big, orange head.  And maybe because he’s not pretty or pink, he can be disarming.  That’s his charm.  Pumpkin Spice has a romantic undercurrent that Cupid simply can’t touch.


The cult-like following naturally attracts Haters. But that only fuels the madness. Pumpkin Spice will throw down the gauntlet to get your game on.  From football to the creative expression of the season – when everything is a perfect idea in our heads of what’s to come – delectable meals, new recipes, family, friends, gifts, and community.


Before the demands and challenges of the real holidays get underway – family stress, exhaustion, depression – he’s out.

Pumpy Spice don’t play that game.

He’s good-time Charlie.  He’ll be remembered for keeping expectations low, surprises high, and swinging all ways – the young, the old, and even the family pets will have indulged to their hearts’ desires. He even catches the eye of spectators who didn’t want to play at all. (He can attract some serious voyeurs, which is the subversive side of this guy).


As the holidays wear on and get cluttered with madness, the non-human holiday flavors get eaten alive in the chaotic mess of it all, transforming the cookies and cakes into face-stuffing stress-relievers.

And maybe when we need him most, Pumpkin Spice will be nowhere to be found. He’ll disappear as fast as he came.

And we’ll forget about him.

Until now.  Now is his time.

Welcome back, Spicey.





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