What’s Behind the Pumpkin Spice Latte’s Social Media Stardom?

October 5th, 2017

What's Behind the Pumpkin Spice Latte's Social Media Stardom

Fall is here in Indiana!

The leaves are falling, the air is brisk, and lattes are spiced—pumpkin spiced. In truth, nothing marks the beginning of Fall (or the beginning of the end, if you are cold-averse like me) like the swarm of students that now venture to my local Starbucks in search of their beloved pumpkin spice lattes. Never a fan of Starbuck’s orange, milky concoctions, I prefer my pumpkin spice in the form of pie, for breakfast, with plenty of whipped cream.

That said, even I can get into a festive spirit when I hear my favorite barista yell, “Pumpkin Spice Latte for Kayla!”

Starbucks TheRealPSL Instagram account

You know your product has made it big when a stigma is built around its consumption. In the case of Pumpkin Spice Lattes, we’re talking the unkind title of “basic.” Hate them or love them, no one can deny the influence of Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte, inspiring imitators, even from big players such as McDonald’s. Let’s dive into the strategy that has kept this festive fall favorite thriving for near 15 years.

The PSL Drives Record-Breaking Social Media Engagement

Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte was introduced in 2003. The pumpkin spice craze that followed made the “PSL” Starbucks’ most popular seasonal beverage, with over 200 million lattes served since its introduction. Now, Starbucks’ menu has expanded to include pumpkin spice scones and pumpkin spice chai, pleasing coffee-lovers and coffee-haters alike.

Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte announcement tweet

If you think this craze is likely to die, think again. This year’s announcement on Starbucks’ official Twitter account garnered over 15,000 retweets and 41,000 likes—engagement they haven’t seen since last year’s tweet. Yes, this means even their unicorn frappuccino didn’t out-perform this year’s PSL announcement on Twitter. (Although, on Instagram, there is no competition; the unicorn frappuccino killed it.)

After all this time, how do they keep the craze going? Well, for one, the Pumpkin Spice Latte has become tradition, like candy corn, Peeps, and conversation hearts (I love all three). Secondly, they work at it, in a real way. Did you know that Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte has its own Twitter and Instagram account? Sure does!

Both accounts are verified. @TheRealPSL has over 36,000 followers on Instagram and over 115,000 followers on Twitter. Knowing how hard it is to build audiences, social media managers everywhere are crying. Is everything Starbucks does gold? No. In this case, it is orange—mysteriously orange, if you ask me.

The Pumpkin Spice Latte has become tradition, like candy corn, Peeps, and conversation hearts. Click To Tweet

What Starbucks Gets Right About Social Media Promotion

My reason for featuring Starbucks’ promotion of their seasonal Pumpkin Spice Latte is not because I am one of the many fans—I am not. I have never even had one, although I have stolen a few sips from friends. However, I am a fan of their tight, exacting promotion of this infamous product.

With no more than 15 tweets and 10 Instagram posts per season, Starbucks wastes no effort in engaging audiences through their @TheRealPSL. Furthermore, they have successfully built a minimal-effort, product-centric character of the drink, complete with orange shades and whipped cream for hair.

Pumpkin Spice Latte character

Many times in the span of my career have I heard creatives say, “You know what would be awesome? If we started a social media account for ___” (insert name of current star character of web series, TV commercial, and/or brand mascot). Please, no! This idea, while seemingly easy, exciting, and advantageous, requires a whopper of an execution. So many questions go unaddressed, such as:

  • Why?
  • Who is our audience?
  • Is this character widely recognized within that audience?
  • Do we have the time and resources to build and manage another channel?
  • Will these efforts dilute the brand?
  • What is the ROI?

The beauty of @TheRealPSL is that Starbucks had every answer to the previous questions before launching the accounts after PSL adoration was solidified through millions of pumpkin spice lattes sold (Twitter in 2014 and Instagram in 2015).

In conclusion, Starbucks is an exceptional exception to the rule. Brands should understand that creating additional character accounts amounts to a whole world of content creation, management, and branding issues. What seems so tight to a brand never seems so complete for audiences who will never know the brand, or the brand’s characters, as well as brand managers.

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