Falling leaves, cosy knit jumpers and Pumpkin Spice Lattes (PSL) on the menu: it must be autumn.

Starbucks’ pumpkin spice lattes turned 20 this year and they’re not just a drink but a cultural phenomenon. You can’t turn a corner or scroll social media without a mention of something pumpkin spiced. How did we get here and are planning, strategy and listening the real PSL?

It all began in an American Starbucks in 2003, the team were brainstorming seasonal drink ideas to follow the success of the Peppermint Mocha from the year before. A pumpkin flavour made their shortlist: it was already a popular autumn and Thanksgiving ingredient, but yet to be seen in a drink.

Two decades later, Pumpkin Spice launch week gave Starbucks its best sales of all time. Each year US consumers spend approx. $500 million on pumpkin-spiced products from candles to cat litter (yes really!). Even a cost of living crisis isn’t curbing the need for warm pumpkin goodness: Statistica reported Starbucks sales were up 20% in 2021 and 8% again in 2022. Marketing and PR have been the key to decades-long, international success. How did Starbucks do it?


Audience listening

Starbucks’ knew their target audience. They conducted surveys at every stage of their process, researching and developing with the responses and adapting their strategies.

Their surveys revealed pumpkin spice scored high on “uniqueness” but came in behind more common flavours like chocolate or caramel. The team saw an opportunity and explored it further. “They would sample a forkful of pumpkin pie followed by a sip of hot espresso – teasing out which flavours from the pie best complemented the coffee.”

The team took a risk with an untapped drink flavour but an open area of the market. They pulled on what their consumers already liked; pumpkins were one of the earliest foods the first European explorers brought back from America, it was already a well-established favourite in the form of seasonal pies and baked goods. After months of tweaking and refining their flavour combinations, a final customer test secured it as a firm favourite above chocolate and other flavours.

Taking time to really understand your audience and customers is vital to the success of any product, it takes out the guesswork and ensures you have the answers, often before the customers even know the question.


Strong imaging and emotions

Starbucks’ PR and marketing isn’t just about the coffee, its about the feeling, tapping into their audiences’ emotions and lifestyle. Their campaigns utilise the senses and that feeling of sipping a hot coffee on a cold day, embracing that taste is closely linked with memory. They have made pumpkin spice synonymous with autumn through light-hearted, funny campaigns and strong autumnal imagery of pumpkins, falling leaves, reds and oranges. And that’s all before you get the sugary caffeine kick of the drink itself.

People buy products and services based on how it makes them feel, whether that’s happy, safe, excited or trusting. How do you want people to perceive your company and what are you doing to enhance that feeling in your writing, marketing and PR strategies?


Create excitement!

Demand, exclusivity and anticipation have been instrumental in PSL’s success.

The drink is only available seasonally, creating a sense of urgency and exclusivity. This year Starbucks’ tweet (now X) featured the date carved into the side of a pumpkin with no other information, enhancing the anticipation and VIP experience for those in the know and creating curiosity in those who don’t.

Their marketing works around the feeling of not missing out: buying a pumpkin spice latte because everyone else seems to be and the hurry to get a PSL before the end of the season.

They also produce pumpkin spice variation each year to keep it fresh and add an element of uniqueness after a 20-year run: this year’s is a pumpkin cream cold brew.

Find an edge to make people invested and excited about your product or service. What story are you telling?


Social media engagement and audience engagement


After three years, Starbucks debated discontinuing pumpkin spice lattes in favour of something new, that was until Facebook and Twitter launched in 2006. Social media gave Starbucks’ PR team a direct insight into what consumers thought of the drink and what they were talking about. Thankfully it was pumpkin spice and all things nice, it took off to a new level and gained a life of it’s own. The seasonal latte even has a Twitter and Instagram account @TheRealPSL which used to respond personally to most of its posts, enhancing user engagement and that sense of PSL VIP experience.

Social media is a great tool for social listening, making it easier to know your audience and adapt to them. It’s also a fast way to interact with people and if used correctly, create trust in a business.



20 years on and as the weather cools, the buzz around pumpkin spice lattes continues. This year’s hype has seen pup-kin spiced latte recipes being shared for dogs and a couple even had pumpkin spice as the scent of their wedding. Even Hollywood actor Ryan Reynolds is getting involved, although he is slating the flavour in a hilarious advert for his personal gin company. Over the last two decades, Starbucks PSL has kept up with trends and diversified but kept that same strong imagery, messages and listening to their audience, resulting in international success and a cultural phenomenon.