Pumpkin spice & everything nice: branding lessons from @TheRealPSL.

It’s finally October – and you know what that means… fall foliage, hoodies, and the ever classic fall drink: the pumpkin spice latte (PSL). The PSL has become a symbol of American culture and a celebration of the beginning of fall… and Starbucks is capitalizing on it by transforming the seasonal beverage into a lifestyle brand of its own.

Starbucks debuted the PSL in 2003 and it has grown to be the company’s #1 seasonal drink of all time. Only available from September to December, the company has sold over 200M PSLs to date. At $5 a cup, the PSL is responsible for over $80M a year in revenue. The company debuted the PSL when there weren’t many pumpkin-flavored products on the market. Today, consumers can’t get enough. Other companies, such as Hershey, Pepperidge Farm, Panera, and Dunkin’ Donuts, are trying to cash in on “the taste of fall” with their own pumpkin-flavored treats. A recent report from Nielsen notes that “pumpkin products accounted for $361 million in sales in the last year alone, having grown 79% since 2011.” With the rise of pumpkin-flavored everything, Starbucks faces an interesting challenge: to remind the world that they were the first to introduce us to the pumpkin craze.

Over the last year, Starbucks has created official Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr accounts for the PSL — all appropriately named @TheRealPSL. The company created a personality for @TheRealPSL, who posts in the first person, dressing him in orange sunglasses, scarves, and snapping photos of him doing all sorts of things – from skateboarding, getting tattoos, reading, and hiking. @TheRealPSL engages with fans with replies, retweets, reblogs, and offers freebies, such as knitted koozies and coupon codes.

instagram.com/@therealpsl

instagram.com/@therealpsl

Last year, in their first four months of social media engagement with @TheRealPSL, Starbucks launched a scavenger hunt on Tumblr and promised customers the grand prize of “unlocking” the PSL a week early. The campaign was a huge success and 100% of their stores were unlocked resulting in a 22% increase in sales. This year, the company launched #PSLFanPass and shared a secret password with their followers to gain access to the drink four days early. Because of their success on social media, Starbucks won a Shorty award in 2014 for @TheRealPSL in the “best tumblr campaign” category. They were also nominated for “best animated gifs” and “best twitter campaign.” All of this has helped Starbucks take the lead on all social media platforms in the areas of engagement, responsiveness, and impact.Screen Shot 2015-10-04 at 3.18.27 PM

So, what can a business learn from a cup of pumpkiny goodness? The biggest lessons are to be authentic and know your audience. Perhaps what’s most interesting about this strategy is that Starbucks treats @TheRealPSL like a celebrity. And, they’ve done a great job of using social media to reach their target audience and remind us that they made the pumpkin craze a reality.

@TheRealPSL isn’t just a beverage. It’s a lifestyle item. Starbucks has created a story around the release of the PSL that people can connect with. Additionally, the company relates to consumers by poking fun at itself… yes, even the PSL had their name misspelled on their Starbucks order.

"Sonya? Sonja? Sania? ...Sonia."

“Sonya? Sonja? Sania? …Sonia, with an I.”

By understanding their audience, Starbucks can create clever content that customers can identify with and are excited to share. They play up the “basic” stereotype and use humor to generate mass appeal. They post all year round and use the account to generate hype about its release. Starbucks also uses the account to get people excited about company news (now with real pumpkin) and generate interest in other seasonal flavors. The company is very careful with their messaging – they aren’t trying to sell you anything – they are trying to build community and fan engagement around all things autumn through the voice of @TheRealPSL.

And, in case you’re interested, I take mine extra hot with soy. 

10 comments

  1. Sonia – As a huge Starbucks fan, I was so excited to see your post! I agree that Starbucks does a great job with its branding on social media. It stays true to its tradition of creating a community and a lifestyle for its customers, and the PSL account is no different. I think one of Starbucks’ main differentiators is that it has seasonal drinks that come out at the same time each year. This gives fans something to look forward to and allows them to build the hype/tease us on social. I think giving the PSL its own account was key to continually differentiating it from competitors. I tried a pumpkin spice latte from Dunkin’ Donuts today, but it just wasn’t the same. As a marketer, I can’t help but wonder if I would’ve felt the same if there wasn’t such hype around Starbucks’ PSL. They have built it up to be a treat, unmatchable by competitors. Whether it’s truly that unique or not, customers like me believe it and that’s partially due to their great efforts on social media. Way to go, Starbucks!

  2. Sonia, thanks for this great post! After conducting a branding research over the fast few months for a coffee chain in NYC, I chose to focus on Starbucks as one key competitor and challenger in the market. I was impressed by Starbuck’s performance on social media platforms and how well the company was doing in the digital world. Moreover, after reading your post I felt assured that Starbucks is by far one of the best companies on social media, around the world. I was very amazed by how Starbucks had created separate Twitter and Facebook pages for the PSL, and found myself checking the pages after reading your post. The User Generated Content Starbucks engages customers with, has allowed it to achieve great brand image and reputation. In our recent days, marketing is all about customer engagement and focusing on consumers and experiences. The more we engage customers, the more loyal they become. Starbucks has done that in an outstanding manner, and the company has been very authentic, unique, and more about lifestyle than anything else. Loved the pictures you posted, and the topic you chose because as a Starbucks fan I can relate to all that. And on another note, I loved the pumpkin spice latte which I tried last week.

  3. ashleighpopera · ·

    I really enjoyed reading your post! I’m not much of a coffee drinker myself but definitely recognize the hype the PSL brings every fall among my friends. I found the revenue and sales statistics you included to be especially interesting. I always figured the PSL was popular but your article shows that it is more than just hype and is truly a successful marketing campaign.
    I also had no idea Starbucks created different Instagram and Facebook accounts for the PSL. The effort put into the campaign and the cleverness and humor included in their strategy really make this campaign standout. Like you mentioned, Starbucks really does do a great job of creating a sense of community and engagement instead of simply trying to sell you a product. I definitely think that companies could learn a lot from Starbucks’ branding approach. Also, hilarious to see the image you included about the PSL having its name spelled wrong on its order!

  4. Sonia, I found this blog to be very informative. Based on your presentation it is clear that Starbuck’s successful marketing of PSL allowed them to have a competitive advantage over their competitors. I found it very interesting the Starbucks did not focus on selling PSL but instead focus on creating a community for PSL consumers. I agree with @hobballa that the user generated content starbucks engages customers with, has allowed it to achieve great brand image and reputation. After reading your blog, I was compelled to do some more research since I was not aware of the Pumpkin Spice Latte war between Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts and McDonalds. I found the below report to be very comprehensive in analyzing the Pumpkin Spice Latte war. http://infegy.com/files/Starbucks-Pumpkin-Spice-Social-Analysis.pdf. If you haven’t seen it before, it was worth checking it out.

  5. Great post Sonia. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but I think another great example of social campaigns for food and beverage promotions is the most recent McDonalds campaign where they are announcing all day breakfast at their locations. It is really amazing how companies are starting to shift the focus of their campaigns to not only have a presence on social, but to include the many little quirks of social in commercials themselves. But the MOST amazing thing is that despite the viral graphic detailing the horrific chemicals present in the PSL, Starbucks has such a loyalty built up around a single drink that I seriously doubt sales have declined.

  6. Funny that you wrote your blog on this topic because I was contemplating writing about it myself last week. I love your post as well at the whole branding strategy behind the PSL. I am a huge advocate for Starbucks and anything/everything pumpkin-spiced so this was a very fun read for me. Starbucks has always been pretty creative and successful with their branding strategies and I think that their utilization of social media combined with the notorious PSL is genious. This is not only something that is eye-catching and fun for people to follow, but it also gets people talking and posting about it themselves. This was a great way for them to increase consumer engagement with their brand. Nice job.

  7. Nice post. I confess, I’m a guy who drinks plain black coffee. I’m convinced that Starbucks is doing a great job marketing the @PSL on social media, though, because this comes up as a blog topic almost every year about this time. That’s some good traction.

  8. Loved reading your blog post as PSL season is my favorite amongst the 5. The pumpkin spice brand has become so popular, I even had pumpkin spice chobani the other day (new favorite flavor). I agree I think Starbucks does a great job advertising not only its brand but its unique assets such as the pumpkin spice latte. I’m not surprise the PSL has its own social media accounts, I feel like this is a great way to humorously interact with your customer base and remind them what makes Starbucks so special. Similarly one of my favorite twitter accounts to follow is Taco Bell, as they humorously tweet back at users and interact with their customers. It’s a popular social media tactic to market at your audience and it’s simplicity is genius.

  9. Starbucks has done a fabulous job of digging amazingly deep cultural roots for this product, so that for many coffee drinkers it’s not autumn without a pumpkin spice latte. I love your point that Starbucks has treated PSL like a celebrity and that they are not “selling” their customers, they are sharing with them and increasing their enthusiasm!

    Additionally, how they address the “basic” stereotypes (among others) is good example of how brands can address and mitigate any negative connotations, gently spinning them into something humorous.

  10. Great post! The PSL campaign is successful because Starbucks is constantly evolving, and creating new ways to engage with their customers. I think the seasonal ‘exclusivity’ makes people eager to get their fill!

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