Pumpkin spice makes its triumphant return – but will the fall favorite ever falter?

By Beth Newhart contact

- Last updated on GMT

Consumer demand and competition from the larger brands are bringing out the pumpkins early this year. Pic: ©GettyImages/bhofack2
Consumer demand and competition from the larger brands are bringing out the pumpkins early this year. Pic: ©GettyImages/bhofack2

Related tags: Flavors, Pumpkin spice, Coffee, Starbucks

Starbucks brought its fan-favorite Pumpkin Spice Latte back to US and Canada stores on August 28, its earliest release date ever. Other brands have followed suit and introduced their fall offerings early as well. But is pumpkin spice still a guaranteed winner – or could other flavors steal its fans?

Summer is winding down, which means drinks will soon be heating up. This year big brands and smaller startups alike started announcing their fall seasonal offerings in the final days of August – a month out from the season’s official start.

While analysts agree that pumpkin spice is probably here to stay, they do point to the danger of consumer burnout – opening the doors for ‘strong contenders’ such as maple.

PSL fever

The Pumpkin Spice Latte was first sold at Starbucks in 2003 and has since become the most recognizable holiday drink offered by the coffee chain. Customers associate the pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove flavors with the autumn season, making its annual debut highly anticipated by fans.

For its fifteenth anniversary the Pumpkin Spice Latte hit US and Canada Starbucks stores on August 28, earlier than ever. In years past it’s returned in the first week of September, which is still three weeks ahead of the first day of fall on September 22.

Starbucks has also brought back other fall favorites and introduced new ones, like the Salted Caramel Mocha, Pumpkin Spice Chai Tea Latte, Pumpkin Scone, Maple Pecan Muffin and Apple Cider Doughnut.

The Pumpkin Spice Latte has a dedicated fan following that responded positively to the early release date, often stating that they would purchase the drink all year round if it was offered. But the limited nature of something so coveted only increases its desirability, making it a major sales win every year.

According to senior beverage analyst Caleb Bryant at Mintel, pumpkin spice is no longer a trend, but rather a flavor that has become synonymous with fall.

“It's not going away and will always be featured in seasonal product launches. However, I do think we're past the time where everything needs to have pumpkin,”​ Bryant told BeverageDaily.

Vegan PSL in Europe

  • Pumpkin Spice Lattes return to all EU stores on September 6
  • Vegan PSLs are available for the first time in the UK, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland and Austria
  • One early idea for the name was 'Fall Harvest Latte'
  • Starbucks has sold more than 200 million PSLs worldwide since 2003
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Spreading the pumpkin wealth

Starbucks isn’t the only brand wheeling out the pumpkins early this year, however. Dunkin Donuts started selling its pumpkin and maple pecan-flavored coffee, muffins and donuts on August 27 along with new menu items Maple Cream Cheese Spread, Apple Crisp Donut and Belgian Waffle Breakfast Sandwich.

Tim Hortons also introduced its fall lineup on August 27, debuting a new pumpkin spice flavor of its popular Iced Capp drink. Other autumn options at Tim Hortons include a Pumpkin Spice Latte, Pumpkin Spice Muffin, Apple Cinnamon Tart and Caramel Apple Danish.

Sprinkles Cupcakes announced the return of its classic pumpkin cake this week, flavored with ginger, clove, nutmeg and cinnamon. It’s also selling a Pumpkin Spice Latte-flavored cupcake this season, which is the pumpkin cake filled with marshmallow cream and topped with Cuban frosting.

Coffee and tea subscription service Amora decided to release its pumpkin flavors earlier this year based on consumer demand and competition from the larger brands. Its Pumpkin Spice coffee was available for order on August 28.

Marina DiDomenico, co-founder of Amora, said “We are excited to bring back Pumpkin Spice to Amora’s specialty coffee lineup for the fall. The flavor is highly-anticipated amongst our subscribers which is why we are releasing it early this year.”

Holly McHugh, marketing associate at Imbibe, told BeverageDaily “While launching early may dilute some of the magic of pumpkin spiced excitement, if one brand is going to do it then competitors don’t want to join in after consumers have hit their saturation point.”

Think outside the pumpkin

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With the pumpkin market at risk of overcrowding, other flavors are getting in on the fall action. Bryant at Mintel reports that the highest number of pumpkin spice food and drink launches was in 2016, which could suggest that the industry may be turning a corner.

McHugh at Imbibe said, “Pumpkin spice is a fall favorite because it triggers feelings of nostalgia for the season change and holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving … But some consumers are experiencing burnout and are ready for the next fall flavor.”

According to McHugh, maple is a ‘strong contender’ because it invokes a similar feeling of nostalgia. Technomic reported that sales grew 85% for maple-flavored non-alcoholic beverages from 2016-2017.

Bryant agrees and cited research from Mintel Menu Insights that found that maple as a general flavor increased in use by 15% between 2015 and 2018.

“I definitely don't think maple will overtake pumpkin spice as a flavor but rather gain greater association with the fall,”​ Bryant said.

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