Autumn is coming early this year. Rumor has it that despite the heat, Starbucks is releasing its pumpkin spice latte earlier than ever, on 27 August. The yearly unveiling of the drink, which has become as emblematic of the autumn as the changing leaves, is a media obsession – to the point that outlets publish articles announcing that there is no announcement. It’s proof of the company’s success: Starbucks has helped to brand an entire season.
The pumpkin spice latte is now available in more than 50 countries, the company says. As of last year, the drink had brought in roughly $1.4bn in sales, according to media estimates. And in the US, it has become inextricable from autumn, to the point where a chill in the air feels like a Starbucks promotion.
The store’s advertising is full of quaint illustrations of falling leaves. The drink’s own Twitter account features enough autumnal orange to make the Great Pumpkin vomit. “Pumpkin spice latte has become more than just a beverage,” the Starbucks executive Peter Dukes, who was central to the drink’s development, says in a press release. “It has become a harbinger of the season.”
The company would not confirm this year’s release date to the Guardian, but it did let us know that there is such a thing as the Starbucks Leaf Rakers Society. According to the group’s Facebook page, it celebrates “fall year long”. Among the group’s rules are “No hatin’ on fall” – it is, after all, “a safe place” for pumpkins and “scarf-wearers”, two of the most oppressed groups in America. They are reminded that any products mentioned must be “Starbucks-focused”: please, if you’re going to give us free advertising, don’t get too creative.
Apparently more than 29,000 people manage to derive some sort of pleasure from the group, though some of them may be pumpkin spice bots.
The popularity of the drink has helped drive an entire cottage industry of pumpkin spice things; Eater has documented 65. And given the flavor’s association with Starbucks, each item – from Nestlé Toll House pumpkin spice morsels to GoGo squeeZ apple pumpkin spice squeezable apple sauce – enters into a promotional feedback loop that offers, in effect, more advertising for Starbucks.
Given the apparently endless appetite for pumpkin spice, you’d think our forebears had been clamoring for it for centuries.
Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte saw the light in 2003. The company says it was looking for something to fill the yawning gap between the eggnog latte and the peppermint mocha. Surrounded by fall decor, the team “would sample a forkful of pumpkin pie, followed by a sip of hot espresso – teasing out which flavors from the pie best complemented the coffee”, the company claims. The result is a sickly sweet combination that has changed America forever.
Perhaps the obsession with the drink is linked to the fact that autumn, with its crunching leaves, bright colors and invigorating breezes, seems to be disappearing. Climate change has altered the way we experience it, and Starbucks is simply feeding our need for what is many people’s favorite season. That’s why, come 27 August, I plan to don my LL Bean fleece and Burberry scarf and head straight to my local Starbucks.