The Cult of Pumpkin Spice, and Why Imitation Doesn't Cut It
In 2003, Starbucks cornered the Autumn beverage market when they introduced the Pumpkin Spice Latte. By 2013, over 200 million of the (artificially) seasonal coffees had been sold. Sixteen years after the debut of the drink/trend/cultural phenomenon, Krispy Kreme fired shots in the Pumpkin Spice Wars. From Sept. 2 to Sept. 8, the doughnut shop told customers to trade in lesser P.S. products for their limited-edition one-week-only calorie hoard of a doughnut, via its Pumpkin Spice Purchase Protection.
While Krispy Kreme punts this faltering horse down the field, let’s take a look at some of the other Pumpkin Spice products they’re inviting comparison to: Pumpkin Spice Cheerios. Pumpkin Spice Kind Bars. Pumpkin Spice Jell-O (this one made me throw up a little in my mouth). Pumpkin Spice Protein Shakes. Pumpkin Spice Spam. Did that last one get through? SPAM. The death of a trend is rarely dignified, but when your product goes from savory seasonal treat to weirdly flavored meat, it’s time to hang up your gourds and go home.
Why so many imitators? That’s the allure of true innovation at work. Starbucks started with a clear understanding of who their customers were, and how their customers understood the Starbucks brand. Customers responded well to winter drinks; expanding to other seasons made sense. Crucially, Starbucks understood the emotional appeal of their product, and how it tied into the human response to fall. Pumpkin spice is less about flavor than it is about nostalgia, warmth, and the comforts of home and family. The association now runs so deep that pumpkin spice is seen as the entry point for the season. Customers link the Pumpkin Spice Latte and Autumn so closely that when one becomes available, they believe the other must have begun. Starbucks created an innovative product that inspired what might be seen by some as irrational loyalty.
It’s a great example of the greatest and the hardest thing about true innovation — it can’t be copied. That’s its nature. It’s absolutely unique, the product of a company that understands its own brand and the relationship its customers have with that brand. It’s the signifier of a company that has done hard work behind the scenes to ensure long-term growth and avoid the pitfalls of cashing in on dying trends. There are conditions a brand can create in order to foster innovation, but it’s much harder to listen to your customers and create emotional connections than it is to hitch yourself to someone else’s star.
That’s why Krispy Kreme’s latest offering misses the point entirely. It feels like an overpriced dinner with a date who keeps comparing himself to your exes and coming up short. Not only is the pumpkin spice trend on the decline (they should have checked for sharks before jumping on this), Krispy Kreme’s rollout is misguided and calls attention to the oversaturation of the market. They’re asking customers to search for pumpkin spice products to trade in for a different pumpkin spice product. They may as well be telling their customers that nothing about them is unique, and that their time is best spent pining for a better pumpkin spice.
They’ve even copied the limited-time availability of Starbucks’ product, but in a way that ignores the key component of Starbucks’ innovation. The Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks heralds the return of fall and signifies your warm memories of the season. The drink is available for the whole season, and then disappears until next year. Though the limitation is artificial, it’s still the reflection of an emotional connection that the customer has forged.
Meanwhile, the NEW Pumpkin Spice Original Filled Doughnut at Krispy Kreme lands with all the emotional subtlety of an exploding cake. It’s available for ONE WEEK ONLY, presumably, so you can spend the rest of the season buying new pants.
Okay, enough cheap shots. Here’s what Krispy Kreme could have done differently:
- listen to their customers,
- define their brand, and
- put energy toward innovating the next pumpkin spice.
If they spent time creating the story of their brand, they could say something about their users and actually become part of their user’s self-concept. They would ignore the features of their product (“It tastes like pumpkin spice, you remember pumpkin spice, right?”) and concentrate on the story it tells about their customers. They would focus on creating the irrational loyalty that is responsible for pumpkin spice in the first place.
Telling customers that they’re different is not enough. In this case, “pumpkin spice” carries so much cultural baggage that it’s impossible to forge a clear emotional connection. It’s so obviously a transparent cash-in that a customer doesn’t even have a chance to feel anything but “meh” about it. This doesn't bring anything new to the table, but instead just rehashes what has been done before.