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Starbucks: Harvesting Brand Image

Posted: September 18, 12:13 p.m.
by Madalyn Atherton.

Move over, apple cider. It may be #basic, but there’s no denying that pumpkin spice reigns supreme as the flavor of fall. Since Sept. 8, when Starbucks launched this year’s Pumpkin Spice Latte, you have probably seen girls flocking to Starbs with their colorful iPhones and monogrammed puffy vests over flannel shirts to take Insta pics of their PSLs.

But it isn’t just the Pumpkin Spice Latte anymore. There’s a pumpkin spice flavor for everythingCoffee simply isn’t enough to satisfy our pumpkin spice cravings.

Photo courtesy of Cesar Paniamogan Jr. (Flickr)

What made the PSL transform from an extremely delicious fall drink at everyone’s favorite coffee chain to a phenomenon that’s taken over the United States? Let’s take a look at the history of the PSL.

Shock, horror, but the Pumpkin Spice Latte almost never happened. Tim Kern, who worked at Starbucks while the PSL was being invented, said that it seemed to be “a beverage so dominated by a flavor other than coffee that it didn’t put Starbucks’ coffee in the best light.” Thank goodness someone overrode that, because now Starbucks makes over $80 million every fall thanks to its genius mix of pumpkin syrup and coffee.

Starbucks was worried, and for good reason, that the PSL was too easy to imitate. After all, it’s just pumpkin syrup and coffee. However, that can be a good thing. Such a simple recipe appeals to a wider range of tastes and makes the drink, at least theoretically, cheaper to produce.

Poseurs such as McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, Panera and so many more have tried to milk the PSL cash cow, but there’s just something about sipping the most iconic fall beverage out of the most iconic cardboard coffee cup.

@TheRealPSL Twitter has 107,000 followers and the Instagram has 17,800. A drink has more followers than most brands could dream of! #PSL started as the abbreviation the baristas wrote on the cups and became the hashtag that has been used countless times across a variety of social platforms.

Photo courtesy of Marco Paköeningrat (Flickr)

The success of the Pumpkin Spice Latte lies, of course, with Starbucks. The company had just the right mix of everything to become an internationally recognized and adored brand. It has a seemingly effortless mix of eco-friendly and laid-back vibes. The coffee giant’s website features its community service programs and information about its ethically sourced coffee. Even people who say they hate Starbucks go to Starbucks. If you wear, or in this case drink, a brand that is cool, you look cool by extension. Every brand in the world is salivating to be considered cool. Starbucks makes it look easy.

Photo courtesy of Arianna Belle (Flickr)

Also, Starbucks thought of the Pumpkin Spice Latte first. Being the first one to the party meant Starbucks got all the credit — and money. Any other brand that produced a similar drink after was just copying Starbucks, and everyone knew it.

The PSL may have helped put Starbucks on the map, though. The company first came to the New York Stock Exchange on June 26, 1992, for $0.34 a share. Its prices grew, but slowly. Then the fall of 2003 came and stock prices soared. Prices are now over $56 a share. What else launched in the fall of 2003? Only everyone’s favorite fall drink.

Unfortunately, there’s no formula to reproduce success like that of the PSL for Starbucks. Peter Dukes, director of espresso Americas for Starbucks said, “Nobody knew back then what it would grow to be. It’s taken on a life of its own.”

It certainly has. The drink has a cult following and is the company’s most successful seasonal beverage. Other brands try to imitate and some are even successful, but the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte will always be the first.

Whether you’re basic and proud, or grumbling in the corner pretending you only like your coffee black, let’s all sip our PSLs and be thankful it wasn’t actually called the “Fall Harvest Latte.”


  1. Platform Magazine | Madalyn Atherton
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    I must admit, Madalyn, I am part of the #basic demographic that flocks to Starbucks as soon as I rip the September page of my calendar. It is astonishing how one risk by a coffee chain changed the marketing mix of many different companies for the subsequent years. One thing I’d like to highlight is that Starbucks had the funds to take the risk of incorporating this fall flavor. The monetary support from the company to test this product out is not a luxury that is found in every competitor. Throughout the history of Starbucks, it has had many flavors that did not reach the success that the pumpkin spice latte has. From the “drinkable chocolate beverage” Chantico to the orange flavored coffee Valencia Mocha, its record is not flawless. The incorporation of this pumpkin flavor had the potential to flop as well, but did quite the opposite. Why does Starbucks take these risks? It is because for every flop, there is a success so great that it claims its own hashtag. Overall, I think we can agree #PTL for #PSL.

  3. Post comment

    As a fellow Starbucks barista, I have the opportunity of witnessing the flocks of girls in their vests and flannels who nearly cry toward the end of the Pumpkin Spice Latte season. I found this article to be great in accurately describing the pumpkin spice takeover and its reflection of the revenue and attention Starbucks has gained from just a simple syrup.

    Every season Starbucks releases a new flavor or drink type, but I do not believe there has been as much of a takeover that the Pumpkin Spice Latte has had. There certainly isn’t an existing Twitter account for the Peppermint Mocha that is advertised during the Christmas season. Will there be another drink or pastry release that will put Starbucks on the map yet again? Or has Starbucks considered releasing a retail syrup of Pumpkin Spice for the fall season? With its Verisimo and simliar Keurig products, Starbucks offers a retail selection for its syrups, such as mocha, vanilla, caramel, hazelnut and even raspberry. Pumpkin Spice would be another great option to sell so buyers have the chance to make their own homemade PSL.


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