Flavor of the Month

An exploration of the pumpkin spice phenomenon and the love/hate relationship that surrounds it

Jordan Williams

Trevor Swearingen, Staff Writer

Pumpkin spice lover, Haley Johnson, psychology sophomore, sees pumpkin spice as more than just a spice.

Haley Johnson loves the fall, in part because it’s pumpkin spice season. The psychology sophomore says that if it were available, she would eat pumpkin-flavored products all year long.

She’s not alone. In fact, in just the last few years since 2011, total sales for pumpkin-related products has increased almost 80 percent, according to Nielsen data. Forbes estimates that nearly half a billion dollars is spent annually on pumpkin-flavored food.

Pumpkin spice doesn’t have a set birthday, but according to an article from Chicagoist, the date of origin is set somewhere in the 1950s-1960s. This is when famous spice brand, McCormick, simplified the then multiple spices put into pumpkin pie, into one. That spice was then named Pumpkin Spice. It wasn’t until decades later in 2003, that the idea was developed to have the spice made into a “sauce” at popular coffee shop Starbucks. Today, the Pumpkin Spice Latte is available on a global level, and according to an estimate from Forbes, sales topped nearly $500 million for “pumpkin-flavored food, drinks and novelties” by mid November of 2015.

“It is really bad for you, but it taste amazing so it’s a guilty pleasure,” Johnson said.

Johnson has been a lover of pumpkin spice since she can remember, the flavor and scent was a consistent presences in her home.

“I was really young when I was first introduced to pumpkin spice, because my mom always liked it,” Johnson said.

Although pumpkin spice has been accredited to being popular because of Starbucks, Johnson instantly claimed she was not a fan of their flavor. Having previously worked at a coffee shop, in addition to being a fan of pumpkin spice, Johnson developed an opinion and taste for the product.

“I can tell a difference between Starbucks and other locations,” Johnson said.

She said she feels like Starbucks makes way too milky coffee.

Kelly Howard, psychology junior, explained although she doesn’t hate pumpkin spice, she sees the flavor as a product of commercialization in recent years.

“I don’t think it’s really as big as everyone put it out to be, I think it’s completely commercialized,” Howard said. “Everybody loves pumpkin spice because it’s a thing right now.”

With Pumpkin Spice Latte having 114,000 followers on Twitter, the product itself certainly has a popularity associated with it. According to Howard, pumpkin spice is nothing more than a trend that people use to help boost their social media presence.

“People saw it was trendy and thought they can get a lot of likes on Facebook or Instagram,” Howard said.

According to the Seattle Met, the origin of pumpkin spice latte began on a dismissive note. In response to success being found elsewhere with their winter themed drink selections, Starbucks’ team members hoped to earn a profit from fall as well. The team met in April of 2003 and began brainstorming potential fall themed beverage ideas, and under the guidance of Peter Duke, the team came up with 20 potential flavors.

The company compiled these 20 flavors into an online-based survey, asking people which proposed flavor they found the most appealing, with the intent of using the results as a means of determining which flavor warranted their focus the most. But according to Duke, the father of the trendy latte flavor, pumpkin spice “fell flat,” placing behind other favorites such as chocolate and caramel accented combinations. With the pumpkin spice flavor not having any sort of initial impact amongst latte enthusiasts at the time of its conception, some people have questioned if there is actual desire for the flavor of pumpkin spice, or if it simply a passing trend instead.

Amber Windell, adjunct professor of advertising and digital marketing lead at Blackstone Media, shared her view on the pumpkin spice phenomenon.

“I think pumpkin spice rose to popularity because Starbucks is really good at marketing their beverages, especially to millennials, which is one of their major target markets,” Windell said.

“They are [Starbucks] really good with global advertising and VIP programs, and making it feel like you’re part of a group. I think other people capitalized off that and now there’s pumpkin spice cereal, snack cakes, t-shirts, buttons and all kinds things,” she said. “YouTube viral videos, also lead to that, with the up rise of people making pumpkin spice rap parody videos.”

In terms of advertising and marketing, Windell mentioned the approaches advertisers use online, which offers a variety of avenues that advertisers can use to help get their product some recognition.

“I think we can learn a lot from the different types of native marketing in advertising with pumpkin spice, so it’s very personalized,” she said. “They find a way to fit in into things you’re already on your phone so it makes sense it’s in mobile advertising, you’re already on social media so you see it a lot on their too.”

Hannah Brooks, psychology senior and barista at IU Southeast coffee shop located in the University Center, discussed flavor and pumpkin spice, and mentioned that the craving for it isn’t a year round desire, and instead functions as more of a trend.

“The beginning of October is when everybody is craving pumpkin,” Brooks said. “And it starts to slow down around November.”

But trend or not, since 2003, pumpkin spice has managed to develop a core following and its fan base continues to grow for the most part. And whether or not the rising interest in the flavor proves to be a trend like some suggest, there is no ignoring the fact that to those like Haley Johnson, pumpkin spice is more than just a flavor, it is a way of life.

“Pumpkin spice is more than simply pumpkin spice,” Johnson said. “I have a pumpkin spice roll waiting for me when I get home.”