“It’s hard to imagine the arrival of autumn without the cozy comfort of a Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte,” Starbucks proclaims, as it announces the return of Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL, to those who are proper fans) to its stores today.
But it’s not just a glib claim: the flavor has become a firm global favorite, fantastic driver for Starbucks, and consistent feature in trending flavor charts. "Since its introduction in 2003 and over the last 20 years, the iconic beverage has had an influence on the coffee industry, pop culture, and everything in between," notes Starbucks.
So what does the success of PSL teach us about developing a winning beverage?
1) Let the imagination roll
The story actually starts with Starbucks’ 2002 first seasonal ‘beverage blockbuster’: Peppermint Mocha (which is also still available in Starbucks stores: good news for those people who - say it quietly - don't like pumpkin spice)
Err... what is a PSL?
"The handcrafted beverage combines Starbucks Signature Espresso and steamed milk with the celebrated flavor combination of real pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. Topped with whipped cream and pumpkin pie spices, the PSL is available hot, iced or blended." - Starbucks
It was such a success that in 2003, the coffee chain decided it wanted to create another hit for the next season.
“We started with a huge brainstorm list and filled the wall with ideas,” said Peter Dukes, who led the Starbucks beverage development team back in 2003.
“We probably had at least a hundred ideas up on the wall. And once we got those ideas, we started to whittle away at them and came down to a list of about 20 different flavors including chocolate and caramel – the most popular flavors to pair with coffee – and there was orange and cinnamon ... and there was pumpkin there as well...”
2) Go for something unique
When the development team asked potential customers what flavors they liked the sound of, it was (unsurprisingly) chocolate and caramel beverages that came out on top.
But – says Dukes – ‘there was something special about pumpkin'
And what made pumpkin special was that it scored high on “uniqueness.”
Consequently, Dukes and the team decided to explore pumpkin a bit further and keep it on their short list.
3) The taste test
However, it wasn’t just about finding a unique flavor. It had to be a flavor that actually complemented and enhanced the coffee flavor and actually tasted good.
In spring 2003, Starbucks’ beverage development team gathered in the “Liquid Lab,” a secure research and development space on the 7th floor of Starbucks headquarters in Seattle.
“Members of the team brought in kitschy fall decorations and pumpkin pies and began to explore ideas,” explains Starbucks. “They would sample a forkful of pumpkin pie followed by a sip of hot espresso – teasing out which flavors from the pie best complemented the coffee.
“For the next three months, the team refined the recipe, handcrafted with espresso, pumpkin spice sauce, and steamed milk – topped off with whipped cream and a dash of pumpkin pie topping. In a taste test alongside the chocolate and caramel beverages, pumpkin was the clear winner.”
Et voila, the very trendy PSL was created.
(PSL, by the way, could have ended up as ‘fall harvest latte’. But Starbucks ended up choosing ‘Pumpkin Spice Latte’ as the name did a good job of highlighting what the product is and what it delivers – ‘spices play a really important role in bringing out the flavors of pumpkin, while also highlighting the espresso in the cup’.)
4) Listen to the consumer
In the fall of 2003, Starbucks first brought the beverage as a test to about 100 stores in Washington, D.C. and Vancouver, Canada.
“Within the first week of the market test, we knew we had a winner,” Dukes said. “I remember calling store managers on the phone to see how the new beverage was doing, and we could hear the excitement in their voices.”
In 2004, Pumpkin Spice Latte rolled out across the US and Canada. But - despite the positive initial reaction - Starbucks wanted to switch things up and try something new. Believe it or not, there were serious discussions of discontinuing the flavor.
It was probably social media that saved the PSL. Pumpkin Spice Latte cemented its status as a recurring seasonal favorite in 2006, when Facebook and Twitter arrived and customers began sharing images of the very pretty and social media friendly pumpkin spiced lattes (we'd now refer to this a highly Instagrammable product - except Instagram didn't arrive until 2010 so doesn't feature at this point in the PSL tale)
5) New consumers, new occasions, new innovations
So Starbucks kept PSL on the menu (and it must it be glad it did, because of course it's the most popular seasonal beverage in stores today).
Every year, it has no trouble in creating a big buzz around the annual August launch.
But the company has also explored how to take that success further by mixing PSL with other flavors, innovations and occasions.
For example, Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew returns to stores for the fifth year: a beverage using trending cold brew coffee sweetened with vanilla syrup, topped with pumpkin cream cold foam and a dusting of pumpkin spice.
And new this fall is Iced Pumpkin Cream Chai Tea Latte. Although quite a mouthful as far as the name goes, Iced Pumpkin Cream Chai Tea Latte also brings in trending flavors which match together for a winter warmer. It was reportedly inspired by a popular customer and barista customization... ‘the creamy chai tea latte pairs a rich blend of spiced chai notes with pumpkin cream cold foam and a dusting of pumpkin spice’.
“The warm spice flavors of chai and pumpkin seamlessly blend together, creating a creamy and comforting iced beverage,” said Starbucks' current beverage developer Billy Altieri.
Starbucks also knows to look beyond its coffee shop sales: extending the success of pumpkin spice to the at-home occasion. This month, it has released a lineup of seasonal Pumpkin Spice flavored at-home RTD coffee, alongside other fall-inspired products.
The lineup features a variety of coffees and creamers for the pumpkin spice enthusiast, including Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Flavored Coffee in K-Cup pods and Roast & Ground, Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Cold Brew Concentrate, Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Flavored Creamer, Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Flavored Non-Dairy Creamer, Starbucks Iced Espresso Pumpkin Spice Latte and Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Frappuccino Chilled Coffee Drink.
Starbucks Fall Blend Coffee and Starbucks Salted Caramel Mocha Coffee are also available in K-Cup pods and Roast & Ground.
Starbucks Reserve stores are roasteries and bars 'where we push our own boundaries of craft, developing a unique roast for each individual lot before experimenting with coffee as an art form—brewing, aging, infusing and blending it into imaginative and often surprising creations'
This year, Starbucks Reserve stores in the US are adding pumpkin spice beverages to its seasonal menu: including the Starbucks Reserve Pumpkin Spice Latte, Pumpkin Spice Whiskey Barrel-Aged Iced Latte and Pumpkin Spice Espresso Martini. New artisanal Princi bakery items joining the menu include a Pumpkin Marittozi and Pumpkin Spice Cake.
And of course innovation goes far beyond Starbucks’ walls with pumpkin flavors all across the F&B industry. 2023 is no exception: with launches ranging from plant-based protein pumpkin spice bars; plant-based pumpkin spice creamers; pumpkin spice Skyr yogurt; pumpkin spice cream cheese; and even pumpkin spice avocado oil caviar.
The question now is where the pumpkin spice latte will go when it turns 21.
Picture credits: All images and infographics: Starbucks