The Psychology of the Pumpkin Spice Latte

How the psychology of associations makes the PSL irresistible

Posted Aug 18, 2020

The arrival of fall has been celebrated throughout time and across civilizations. The Mayans, for example, created an entire pyramid that would mark this annual event. It created a shadow in the image of a snake, which would only appear when the sun hit it just right during fall equinox. 

Centuries later, the arrival of fall is still a time for celebration. But instead of a mythological serpent, modern civilization has honed in on a different symbol: The Pumpkin Spice Latte. As far as consumer behavior is concerned, it stands as the unofficial start of the fall shopping season. And unlike Halloween or Thanksgiving, it lasts much longer.

Photo by Şahin Yeşilyaprak on Unsplash
The PSL was introduced in 2003 and quickly became a cultural phenomenon
Source: Photo by Şahin Yeşilyaprak on Unsplash

The Pumpkin Spice Latte, or PSL, is an inescapable phenomenon. Initially greeted by a mixed reception in 2003, PSL quickly caught fire and never turned back. Starbucks describes it as the most successful seasonal drink of all time and credits it for anchoring the public's buying behavior for the rest of the year.

A Forbes analysis estimates the Pumpkin Spice Latte exclusively captures over $100M in revenue each year. Along with back-to-school supplies, it is now synonymous with seasonal shopping. 

Moreover, PSL is exclusively for fall consumption only. From a business standpoint, the fall-only window makes sense because scarcity creates demand. But beyond sheer economics, there's something else at play. The exclusive seasonality creates a mental relationship between the drink and the brain of the consumer, which transforms it from merely "a drink" to a transcendent psychological experience. 

To better understand the relationship, we need first to understand the neuroscience of taste and how it relates to memory

The Neuroscience of Taste and Memory

Taste is not our strong suit. In fact, it is the least developed sense in humans and not nearly as sharp as other senses. The weakness of taste leaves us susceptible to strong contextual associations. 

Compare taste and vision. The most active foodies might experience 10 unique flavors in a given day while encountering thousands of unique visual events. The discrepancy in datapoints affects taste-based memories.

 Photo by Heleno Kaizer on Unsplash
The appeal of the PSL is more than just it's scarcity
Source: Photo by Heleno Kaizer on Unsplash

When we experience a unique taste, our brain takes notice by creating a unique memory-by-association. Where does the association come from? The context. The brain connects the specific taste with the overall context in which the tasting occurred. It takes into account the time of day, what we were wearing, seeing, hearing, feeling, etc. Most important for the discussion of pumpkin spice lattes, the brain takes into account the season. 

Think about it. You see the color red more than you taste cinnamon. So, the taste of cinnamon triggers particular memories in a way that seeing the color red does not. This is why taste is closely tied to episodic memory, which is a memory of specific events or episodes. 

What do taste, episodic memory, and pumpkin spice lattes have in common? They work together to cement psychological associations. Two variables play a vital role in building strong associations — exclusivity and repetition. 

Pumpkin spice lattes are consumed exclusively in the fall. Having one in April just feels wrong. Next, the tasting ritual is repeated annually, which works to amplify the strength of the association between taste and memory.

Each purchase of a Pumpkin Spice Latte strengthens the special relationship between the flavor and the fall season while also returning to mind all of the PSLs from our past. With every sip, the two become closer and more inseparable (nevermind the launch date of PSL for 2020 is technically in the summer, August 28th).

With enough repetition, our brains connect the two to such a degree, we effectively drink the feeling of fall, despite the fact that it may technically be summer!

Beyond the PSL: Champagne, Beer, and Context

Outside of Starbucks, these contextual associations have enormous consequences for the consumer world. Think about champagne. When do you drink champagne? You pop champagne when you're celebrating. Really, champagne is exclusively consumed at a celebration. Just like the pumpkin spice latte tastes like fall, champagne toasts taste like a celebration. 

This is excellent news for champagne brands when it's New Year's Eve, but what about the other 364 days of the year? 

Unlike the PSL, champagne's associations come with a narrower economic window. 

Photo by Chichi Onyekanne on Unsplash
Champagne is the drink of choice for celebrations, but what about other contexts?
Source: Photo by Chichi Onyekanne on Unsplash

Here's where our unique relationship with taste-based memories poses a challenge. Celebrations aside, champagne struggles to fit the contextual association of everyday "regular" drinking occasions. When you flop down on the couch on a Tuesday night, popping a bottle of bubbly is likely the last thing on your mind. The celebratory associations are too strong, which handcuffs the use-case and appeal of champagne. 

The trade group French Wine and Food deliberately campaigned to broaden the appropriate context for champagne. Instead of celebratory events, they associated with spontaneous events instead. The (decidedly French) campaign slogan says it all, "Unexpected Things Happen In The 'Oui' Hours." 

Few competing products, namely upscale microbrew beers, have successfully penetrated the 'celebration' market. Brut IPAs and strong Belgium ales provide alternative options over champagne as the bubbly celebration drink of choice. The alternatives are not shy to mimic the look and feel of champagne either!

Beer brands' strategy should sound familiar: create advertisements that pair the beer inside of a known context of their target market. Think Coors Light + sports or (pre-pandemic) Corona + beaches. In the same way that champagne + celebrations have little objective commonalities, there may be little in common with beer and sports. But due to associative, contextual conditioning, we still reach for a beer when "the big game" is on. 

Neuromarketing is why certain foods or certain drinks just feel right at a specific time. Our weakest sense, taste, is effectively hacked by brands that successfully create contextual associations with edible products.

How far will brands take the contextual memory tactic? Can and should consumers catch on? Hard to say. But one thing is certain: Like winter and the fall equinox before it, the Pumpkin Spice Latte is coming. 

This post originally appeared on the consumer behavior blog PopNeuro.

References

History.com Editors. (2017, September 18). Fall Equinox. Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://www.history.com/topics/natural-disasters-and-environment/fall-equinox

Johnson, M. and Ghuman, P. (2020) Bilndsight: The (mostly) Hidden Ways Marketing Reshapes our Brains, Dallas, TX: BenBella Books

Maynard, Michelle (Sep, 2017) The Numbers That Show Why Pumpkin Spice Latte Is So Crucial To Starbucks' Fall Sales, Forbes

Starbucks Stories Editors (Sep, 2016) Starbucks Spices Up Fall with Pumpkin Spice Latte and the New Chile Mocha. Retreived August 14, 2020 from https://stories.starbucks.com/stories/2016/psl-chile-mocha-2016/