Since Peter Dukes, Starbucks’ director of espresso, and his team developed the infamous Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL) in the Liquid Lab just short of 20 years ago, the PSL has become not only Starbucks’ most popular seasonal product since its launch but has become a way of life for some and a cultural phenomenon for even more. For all, though, the annual re-up of the pumpkin drink is a signal of the oncoming fall season.
There are many attributes of this drink that make it not just a drink but a novelty to the American public. For one, the drink itself is faux — though it consists of clove, cinnamon, nutmeg and even ginger, there was no pumpkin in the Starbucks recipe prior to 2015. Nevertheless, the coalescence of pumpkin pies, the fall season and the twin-tailed siren mascot is one of the most masterful marketing feats of the 21st century.
What Starbucks does so intentionally with the PSL is their exploitation of the traditional phenomenon that holds importance in our associations with fall. An article from U.S. News & World Report further explains that tradition grabs head space through memorable insignia of an event via food, rituals and customs. These rituals and customs that come in a clock-like manner on a yearly basis give our brain comfort and a sense of belonging in a larger community.
Montana Miller, a pop-culture psychologist, ties these ideas together, claiming that the modern middle-class American utilizes tokens of mass production, such as the PSL, as a medium of experiencing a sense of belonging in a society in which the middle class is losing its firm grip. The fall season and especially the idea of “Thanksgiving,” for some reason, exudes a very American sentiment of tradition and origin that the general American public resonates with. The now almost-obsolete ritual of families getting together and carving wicked-faced pumpkins to ward off evil is something that adults across the nation crave to do. Instead, a perhaps more economical option of the PSL provides consumers with the notion of tradition and belonging, the sentiments of pumpkin carving and, of course, a sharp cinnamon taste that signals the new season.
But the beauty of this drink lies beyond its sentiments of belonging and long-lost tradition. Historically, the PSL has been the harbinger of several microtrends in fashion and accouterment, initially with its cult following and now with a mass body, across the years. A Vogue article published this September highlights how the PSL’s earthy ochre and burnt sienna color has become a fashion genre in and of itself. Monochromatic terracotta outfits, argyle sweater vests with carob and hickory tinges and even yam-shaded French manicures are all microtrends of PSL-core.
Putting aside PSL fashion trends, the season of fall brings upon an incumbent duty to bring out fashionable earth-toned knitwear.For many others, fall symbolizes another American favorite: football. Starbucks’ genius even managed to penetrate this market. In September 2017, Starbucks introduced Seattle Seahawks-designed sleeves for Starbucks gifts that were made exclusive to exclusive stores throughout Washington state in order to pay homage to the recent Super Bowl champions. Handily, these sleeves were most definitely used by NFL fanatics to protect their hands from the piping PSLs.
PSLs have been a cultural force for the past two decades. Love it or hate it, fortunately or unfortunately, the PSL and all related PSL-microtrends are here to stay for at least the next few fall seasons. The simple interaction at the coffee shop — picking up a PSL with your name likely unimaginably misspelled — may not elicit such a deep discourse on the cultural implications of a Starbucks drink. Nonetheless, the impact it has had on the psyche of our society — especially Millenials — and its impact on how our younger generation reacts to the marketing strategies of big corporations is undeniable. But, forget the specifics. Go celebrate the advent of the fall equinox with a fresh brew of PSL! Whether you love or hate the PSL trends, its immaculate blend of spice, steamed milk and Ugg-wearing sentiments is undeniable in its hold on American society.