October 2023 | 

Enough Already with the Pumpkin Spice

Enough Already with the Pumpkin Spice

According to The Guardian, “Scandinavians have hygge; Americans have pumpkin spice.” If that’s true, the blend of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice (originally used to flavor pumpkin pies) is more feeling than flavor, the scent evoking the coziness of autumn and the contentment of spending more time indoors as the sun sets earlier.

But that’s not what American marketers have in mind. The glut of pumpkin spice products suggests overconsumption rather than cozy contentedness. On this 20th anniversary year of Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice latte (“PSL” to its legion of fans), shelves are stocked with pumpkin-spiced foods like Spam, breakfast cereal, and cheese. Beyond food, there are pumpkin spice-scented trash bags, body wash, and toilet paper. And for pets and feathered friends, alcohol-free dog beer, cat litter, and birdseed all come pumpkin spiced. Feeling romantic this fall? Consider a £10,000 Pumpkin Spice Latte Ring, a.k.a. “The perfect ring for when it’s love at first sip,” per Angelic Diamond’s website.

If you’re wondering if there is anything left to be pumpkin spiced, Wharton marketing professor Peter Fader says you’re asking the wrong question. “Pumpkin spice has jumped the shark,” he explains, using a reference to its decline (“jump the shark” originates with an episode of the ‘70s TV sitcom Happy Days, whose writers had clearly run out of ideas when they put lead character Arthur Fonzarelli, a.k.a. Fonzie, on water skis and had him literally jump a shark).

“When the Pumpkin Spice latte was introduced, it was clever, interesting, and effective,” says Fader. “It’s nice when companies come up with novel ideas that are genuinely appealing and find ways to leverage them in ways consumers don’t find annoying. But what was novel and creative 20 years ago has become eye-rolling. That is where we are. Marketers are now just going through the motions, and it’s always a shame to not quit while you’re ahead.”

That was the conclusion of a Fire Dept. Coffee survey completed in August of 2022, weeks before most pumpkin spice products entered the market. More than one in three respondents said they were already tired of hearing about pumpkin spice, and one out of every 10 said they’d had an argument with a family member over their views on pumpkin spice coffee. Another 10 percent said they might break up with their partner over their views on pumpkin spice.

The Bigger Picture

Fader says the pumpkin spice craze, and the 2023 introduction of numerous new products, is indicative of a current trend in marketing that seeks lower risk and expense by leaning too much on the tried and true. “In the introduction to my first book [Customer Centricity: Focus on the Right Customers for Strategic Advantage], I wrote about tapping into the cultural zeitgeist to make certain customers feel special. Starbucks did that; I give them credit for starting the pumpkin spice craze. But now that so many others have jumped in, it suggests it’s time to move on.”

He says marketers who choose to add a new pumpkin spice product today aren’t taking advantage of tools and technologies that can help them find their next novel idea. “Pumpkin spice has become a default. Marketers are asking ‘What is our next pumpkin spice thing going to be?’ instead of ‘What’s the next pumpkin spice?’ They’re choosing it not because it’s their best idea but because it’s safe.”

The Antidote to Fear? Creativity

“There is more pressure on marketers, with bigger downsides right now,” says Fader. “A few high-profile campaigns have faced intense backlash for LGBTQ marketing campaigns this year. Consumers are feeling more empowered to tell companies what is right and wrong, and punishing them when they disagree. I suspect there will be even more of that to come, and it is making companies more risk averse.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s always a safe bet to go with the safe choice. “Not all campaigns will be successful, and some will backfire,” he explains. “But you can’t say in 2023 that anything about pumpkin spice is bold. It’s just safe. What’s needed to move past the fear is greater creativity — not less.”

Fader also says today’s tools and technologies can help marketers allay their fears by performing informal tests before they bet everything on a new idea. “They can scrape available social media data without experimenting at all. If you put your finger on the pulse of cultural reaction to pumpkin spice, you’d probably see that a lot of it is cynicism, not praise. You can take that pulse without hiring a researcher. Marketers should be monitoring these kinds of reactions every day: they’re instructive, cost effective, and very actionable.”

AI can also be instructive. “Ask ChatGPT to formulate an ad campaign for some coffee or food product that’s related to the phenomenon of the moment,” he suggests. “The point is that with the ability to quickly take the cultural pulse, you should be able to come up with something clever. If it’s your company’s dream to create the next pumpkin spice, you’re not going to get there by continuing with more of the same. It’s time to move on.”