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.
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.
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.
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.