NEW YORK — The Wall Street Journal labeled it a “Halloween horror story.” The Internet called it something else: a “pumpkin panic.”
During the first week of October 2012, the Journal reported that Starbucks stores around the country were running out of the syrup used to make its Pumpkin Spice Latte — one of several fall drinks the chain releases seasonally, for a limited time.
Customers, like those who frequent StarbucksGossip.com, were shocked.
“WHAT IS HAPPENING?” wrote one user.
The answer is simple.
“We need rituals,” said Katherine Sredl, assistant professor in the Department of Marketing at the University of Notre Dame.
Sredl, who studies consumer consumption and seasonality, said that it’s no surprise when big-name items, like a spiced latte in October or brand of shoe during back-to-school shopping season, become inextricably linked with the season in which they appear.
“I think what consumers do really well is they place their products inside the meaning of those rituals,” Sredl said.
Buying becomes its own ritual, which can be a powerful marketing tool.
“Rituals, when they go well, give you a good emotional feeling, that’s what people want,” Sredl said. “They want to feel like there’s something they can rely on.”
But breaking a ritual brings a similar impact, and that’s what happened with Starbucks. People come to rely on these products, Sredl said, and enjoy the feeling of reliance they provide.
This pattern of behavior isn’t unusual. During the back-to-school shopping season, which Sredl has studied specifically, shoe-buying often dominates and parents have been known to panic if the shoe or size or price they’re hunting is suddenly unavailable.
Consider Christmas. “Usually in marketing when we think about seasonality, we think about Christmas because it’s such a huge retail season. But it’s not the retail really — in this case, the pumpkin spice — that created the phenomena,” Sredl said. “It’s the change of seasons.”
But the craze doesn’t stop with caffeine.
Stan Frankenthaler, Dunkin’ Donuts’ executive chef, is no stranger to the strong relationship customers build with their seasonal treats — whether it’s a new latte or new donut.
Dunkin’ got into the pumpkin game about eight years ago, Frankenthaler said, and hasn’t stopped. In September, Dunkin’ announced new pumpkin-flavored K-Cups, for brewing coffee, alongside pumpkin muffins, donuts and cream cheese.
Annually, the company uses about 100 million pounds of pumpkin puree — with good reason.
“[Customers are] saying ‘more pumpkin, more pumpkin, more pumpkin,'” Frankenthaler said.
More pumpkin is one of the most frequent customer requests, through sites like Facebook, he said. “And we’re saying to ourselves, ‘Wow, they love pumpkin that much. What else can we do?'”
It helps that pumpkin has its roots in fall festivities. Both Sredl and Frankenthaler said celebration is a major hook for ritual-making, whether it’s celebrating the last day of Christmas or the first day of spring. One reinforces the other.
“Food really is about that in-the-moment celebration,” Frankenthaler said. “No one is thinking about eating pumpkin when you’re still wearing a bathing suit.”