Why is the PSL still the one?

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Our Global Marketing Manager, Emma Bowles, has a look at how this season’s signature flavour has become part of popular culture.

As we say so long to summer and settle into the new season, I’m always struck by the initial excitement about the prospect of Autumn. Maybe it’s because this time of year reminds us of starting a new school year, we know that Christmas is around the corner, or the fact that September is often hailed as the January of the high fashion world, that gets us thinking positively about what’s ahead.

For many, nothing signifies the approach of winter like the eagerly awaited arrival of the infamous ‘Pumpkin Spice Latte’, or PSL for short. What is it about this flavour that has captured, and held, the world’s attention for over 15 years?

Back in 2003, Peter Dukes, Starbucks' director of espresso, was eating pumpkin pie and washed it down with an espresso. According to Adweek, something about that flavour combination held promise and – fast-forward a bit – the team concocted a coffee drink with cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. The pumpkin part came later, and the rest is history. Smart, limited-sale marketing created a strong demand for this product from the beginning and each year, its launch date is a closely guarded secret to ensure the biggest possible build up.

The PSL’s success endures because it hits the perfect sweet spot of familiar but new. Its creators knew that consumers were looking for something recognisable but unique and created a blend of flavours that perfectly captured this sentiment. The nostalgic comfort of Autumn (and Thanksgiving in particular) is a big pull for consumers, particularly millennials, who are looking for experiences that remind them of childhood as Halloween, Bonfire Night and Christmas continue to be extremely evocative.

Since Starbucks’ launch over a decade ago, more than 350million cups of this seasonal staple have been enjoyed the world over. Not only has it inspired countless other coffee brands to launch their own iteration, but the success of the flavour can truly be seen in how it’s translated across so many platforms. This time of year, you don’t have to look far to find a pumpkin spice candle, body lotion or confectionary as well as cocktail, beer or gin.

So, what can beverage brands take away from this? Knowing your audience is the key to being successful in a challenging and crowded marketplace. It’s only by understanding what drives people, that you can create something they’ll love.

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