Q&A: Brian Erickson on what pumpkin spice tells us about seasonal marketing

Each week we sit down with members of the Cardwell Beach team to discuss marketing, sales and team management insights. This week, Matt Hansen interviewed me about the legendary Starbucks pumpkin spice latte, the growing trend towards seasonal-themed goods and what this tells us about the power of marketing to your customers on a seasonal basis.

Q: You have done some research into the phenomenon of pumpkin spice-themed products and you’ve found that it’s a growing trend. Tell us about that.

Pumpkin Spice Latte Sign Photo by ParentingPatch/Wikimedia Commons

A: I was looking at some statistics about the seasonal craft beer market. It was up 3.5%, with $250 million driven largely by pumpkin. That got me thinking about this and led me to do some research. The first bit of research I did was that I went to the store and just walked around and ended up seeing pumpkin spice Oreos, and that was when I knew this had gone beyond the basic foods and drinks we associate with pumpkin. We are now engineering them to have this flavor.
(For the sake of my research, I had to pick up the pack of Oreos. They were pretty good.)
I then found this PopSugar article that said last year reviewers were able to find 88 pumpkin spice flavored foods. This year they found 113. The fact that they are increasing the number of foods they are reviewing and that this is of interest to people speaks to the growth.

Google Trends Data about Pumpkin Spice vs other seasonal trends like watermelon and cider. Google Trends: Pumpkin Spice vs. watermelon & cider.

There is also Google Trends data about pumpkin spice and how it has grown year after year. What you find in the data, aside from just the fact that it is a search term that is growing rapidly year after year, is that there is also a very narrow window each year when consumers are interested in this.
Starbucks invented the pumpkin spice concept back in 2003, but as it has grown in popularity, you get about 30 days where pumpkin spice flavored foods are super popular. It’s a very short window.

Q: So what’s the takeaway here for businesses who are perhaps envious of the pumpkin spice success story?
A: The moral of this story is not for everyone to go out and create pumpkin spice something, but more so that seasonal differentiation can play a powerful role in growing your business. You can’t totally rely upon it or be gimmicky, but it can be a way to give a nice spike to your traditional revenue, especially as you are coming up on seasonal events where people have an existing emotional connection that hasn’t been drawn out yet.
It may be a little bit late to jump on the pumpkin spice bandwagon, but seasonal differentiation can be a great asset for brands.

Q: Can the concept of seasonality work for companies that aren’t in the food and beverage industry?
A: Absolutely. One of the best examples I’ve seen of this was Bloomingdale’s last year for Chinese New Year. Who does a Chinese New Year’s sale? No one. So they had a huge promotion here in New York, where they decorated the entire outside of the store and had people outside handing out golden tickets that were Year of the Ram-related. The promotion was excellent. It drove people all the way into the store. Nothing else was going on that day.
That’s the spirit of seasonal differentiation, where the spirit of things like pumpkin spice flavoring comes into play.
The other factor to keep in mind, too, is that even companies outside of the traditional market can tap into trends like pumpkin spice. For example, Snapchat did a promotion around pumpkin spice this year. They are neither a food nor drink brand but they are leveraging a trend and within their category they were the only player to do a pumpkin spice-themed promotion. Within the food and beverage category, it is a little bit played out. But within categories outside of that, how can you capitalize on the concept? There are interesting ways to play with seasonality in business.

Q: What is it about seasonality that makes consumers so interested in these products?
A: We have unlimited choice, especially in the era of Amazon Prime and FreshDirect. We can get anything we want at any time. That’s appealing on the whole but there is something unique and charming about being told that something is only available now and getting into the spirit of the moment. It’s like when your favorite sports season is starting back up. It’s not available all year round, and that makes it special.

Q: How can companies that have little relationship to a seasonal business tap into this trend?
A: I wouldn’t say that Durex is very aligned with pumpkin spice, at least not in ways that I can think of. But they have integrated pumpkin spice into their products, as well. I’ll leave it at that.

Q: There are creative ways to do this, in other words.
A: There are definitely creative ways to do this. I think Snapchat may be the best example of that, as a technology product that gets a lot of traction by leveraging trends in their own way.

Q: In addition to the seasonal component, it sounds like there is also an element of scarcity at work here. Can you talk about how that drives consumer behavior?
A: I do think there’s scarcity at play there. There are a lot of products that are seasonal and scarce. Take Apple, for example, that push out products with seasonal consideration. Obviously they have more than enough time to produce a high quantity of products and they certainly have the production capacity, but they are going to sell out on the first day, guaranteed. I think smart companies do use scarcity to their benefit.

Q: How can companies instill the principle of seasonality in their marketing efforts?
A: If we come back to the way this was originally conceived, when Starbucks introduced pumpkin spice, they were looking for something that was unique and an area where there was not a lot of existing competition. Find an area where there is not a lot of noise already and where you are relatively differentiated from competition. Look for things that are already popular but outside of your industry. Pumpkins are popular every autumn but they hadn’t been brought into food and beverages in a meaningful way. That was what Starbucks realized. Just looking at food, and there are seasonal spikes around watermelon in the summer and cider in the dead of winter. These are areas where you have room for differentiation.
Don’t do another Christmas promotion, don’t do another Fourth of July sale. Look at those off-cycle type of opportunities where you can tap into an existing emotion and really draw it out further.

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