3 Actual Business Reasons for the Plethora of Pumpkin Spice
Walking through my local grocery store in Southern California, the popularity of pumpkin spice flavor for limited edition new product examples is hard to miss. Whether it’s the Dunkin’ Donuts endcap display of pumpkin spice coffee, the Pumpkin Spice Cheerios in the cardboard popup display or the Pumpkin Spice Twinkies next to the Iced Pumpkin Hostess cupcakes in a freestanding display, the flavor’s presence is felt.
It doesn’t stop there. People magazine highlights 10 pumpkin spice-flavored new product examples available in grocery stores nationwide:
- Jet-Puffed Pumpkin Spice Marshmallow
- Kind Chocolate Pumpkin Spice Thins
- Pumpkin Spice Twinkies
- Toll House Pumpkin Spice Cookie Dough
- Thomas’ Pumpkin Spice: Bagels, Swirl Bread and English Muffins
- Pumpkin Spice Cheerios
- Two Roads Rosemary’s Baby Pumpkin Ale
- International Delight Pumpkin Spice Creamer
- goodpop Pumpkin Spice Latte Pop
- Betty Crocker Pumpkin Spice Cookie Mix
How Many Pumpkin-Spice-Flavored New Product Examples Could There Possibly Be?
As might be expected, when one brand in a packaged goods category offers limited edition pumpkin spice, others are likely to offer it as well. And before you know it, the grocery store shelves are bursting with options.
For instance, similar to International Delight, the market-leading Coffee Mate creamer brand also has a limited edition pumpkin spice flavor. Like Nestle’s Toll House brand, Pillsbury offers Pumpkin Cookie Dough, and Pillsbury Grand! Pumpkin Spice Rolls. In ready-to-eat cereal, choices include Kellogg’s Special K Pumpkin Spice Crunch, Life Pumpkin Spice, Frosted Flakes Pumpkin Spice, Frosted Mini Wheats Pumpkin Pie Spice and more. There are over 2,000 pumpkin-flavored beer and cider brands on the market, in case you haven’t found Two Roads Rosemary’s Baby.
NielsenIQ found 3,072 pumpkin products in the 52-week period ending July 2023, with the number of products down approximately 5% from two years before. Total pumpkin product sales were reported at over $803 million for the year ending July 2023 by Nielsen IQ, up from $564 million five years ago and 15% from the previous year.
Pumpkin Spice’s Starbuck’s Origin Story
Why is pumpkin spice flavor so popular? What fuels brands’ continued interest in innovation around pumpkin spice and its signature orange color?
In food and beverage products, flavor trends often start and gain momentum in restaurants and then spread to retail. Famously, the restaurant chain Starbucks first introduced the pumpkin spice latte as a seasonal specialty drink 20 years ago in 2003. Each year, the release date for Starbuck’s Pumpkin Spice Latte is touted, and this anniversary year, the flavor became available on August 24, along with its cousin- the Iced Pumpkin Cream Chai Latte. Despite concerns that this may be the last year for Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte, due to declining sales, my expectation is that we can expect to see it again in 2024.
According to Fortune, the pumpkin spice season is starting earlier as social media influencers are calling for their pumpkin spice flavor earlier, before, for instance Labor Day and brands and retailers are responding. For example, Starbucks released Pumpkin Spice Latte on September 3rd in 2013 for the 10th anniversary and on October 10, 2003 for the original launch.
Let’s dive into the three actual business reasons for pumpkin spice’s popularity (beyond clamor from social influencers).
Reason #1 for Pumpkin Spice New Product Examples:
Orange color is relevant to two major holidays
The pumpkin spice season has extended, now starting in the second half of August in grocery stores, with Dunkin’ Donuts offering Pumpkin Spice Latte on August 16th. 7-Eleven started even earlier on August 1st. Many retail products such as Pumpkin Spice Cheerios were on hand in my local store by late August (before Labor Day).
With pumpkin spice’s signature orange color, and linkage to Halloween pumpkins and Thanksgiving’s pumpkin pie, pumpkin spice arguably has a longer season than other fourth quarter flavors like peppermint.
Pumpkin flavor bridges these two major holidays, and the orange color stands out in retail displays. There are other holiday flavors that link to traditional favorite foods and colors, but they arguably have a shorter duration and only one holiday. For example:
- St. Patrick’s Day is associated with green-colored products, for example, McDonald’s Shamrock Shake (first introduced in 1967 and available this year starting Feb. 20, 2023 with St. Patrick’s Day falling on March 17). There are also many green beers available for St. Patrick’s Day. Overall, this is a shorter season than pumpkin spice by my calculations.
- Easter is associated with a myriad of pastel-colored products, many that are just sweet without a strong flavor profile, such as jellybeans and marshmallow treats. There are many limited-edition candies. There are also seasonal Pillsbury Bunny Cookies and many grocery store bakery cookies, cakes and cupcakes. Easter candy will be available in store “as early as late February or mid-March.” This year, Easter fell on Sunday April 9th. While this season is relatively long, the range of products and flavors falls short of pumpkin spice.
- 4th of July’s red, white and blue retail include jellybeans and other red, white and blue candies. Grocery stores are full of red, white and blue iced cupcakes and cookies for holiday gatherings. Some restaurants such as Applebee’s also offer special menu items that leverage the holiday’s colors. Again, this is a short season.
- The Christmas holiday has many food products themed around holiday red, green and white colors and flavors such as peppermint and gingerbread. Starbucks announced its holiday lineup with Peppermint Mocha Latte and more for 2022 starting November 3rd.
Reason #2 for Pumpkin Spice New Product Examples:
For many Americans, it’s a seasonal favorite comfort flavor, signaling fall
With its link to holiday gatherings of family and friends for pumpkin pie, and the popularity of the coffee drinks, the flavor is a “taste of home” or a “taste of fall,” inspiring many new product examples.
Says Darren Seifer, food and beverage analyst for research firm Circana:
“Pumpkin spice has solidified its role as autumn’s comfort flavor, just as we associate ice cream with summer months and soups with winter.”
Dennis Phelps, 7-Eleven’s senior vice president of merchandising (vault & proprietary beverages) clarifies the brand’s decision to offer pumpkin spice latte on August 1st.
“We decided to break out the pumpkin a little bit early this year…It may not quite feel like fall outside yet, but it sure can taste like fall as we enjoy the first Pumpkin Spice Latte of the season.”
There is never a “nip in the air” to feel like fall here in Southern California, yet our state ranked #2 behind Washington (home of Starbucks) in popularity for pumpkin spice obsession. Clearly, we get in the mindset for pumpkin spice flavor regardless of the temperature. Though, of course, California has cold weather, the other top pumpkin-obsessed states are more well-known for cold weather climates:
The most pumpkin-obsessed cities include California’s Sacramento and Los Angeles:
- Las Vegas
- Los Angeles
Reason #3 for Pumpkin Spice New Product Examples:
Complex flavor trends are growing long-term, supporting growth
Pumpkin spice is a strong flavor, and the broader category of spicy foods is also on a long-term growth trend. Demand for complex flavors with some panache is increasing—and with these new product examples, we see brands responding. While some foodies may argue pumpkin spice isn’t complex enough, it’s hitting a big taste profile among US consumers.
Although recipes for pumpkin pie date back over 200 years, McCormick lays claim to introducing its Pumpkin Pie Spice premixed blend nearly 90 years ago, in 1934, with four spices: ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice.
Within the spicy or “heat” trends, McCormick’s Flavor Forecast for 2023 elaborates:
“We’ve observed trends in spicy for years and have witnessed an exciting evolution to this new, multi-sensorial, layered taste experience. Today, heat continues to push beyond the singularly spicy realm and takes off on a journey where heat and ingredient pairings come together to shape how heat is perceived and how long it lingers and ﬁnishes.”
Challenges to Pumpkin Spice Flavor’s Growth
To be sure, there are some headwinds that have been noted on the pumpkin spice flavor. Nielsen IQ reported that consumers bought 1.5% fewer pumpkin items in the most recent year due to inflation and higher prices. Circana reported a drop from 4.8 eatings per person to 4.5 eatings per person (6% reduction) in the most recent 12 months.
More complex spicy flavors may gain popularity. Or pink products made with pink ingredients on the rise include “strawberry puree, sriracha ranch, dragon fruit, berry sauce, pomegranate glaze, hibiscus, sockeye salmon, poke and sumac”. While likely targeting a different season of spring, these pink food product choices may draw consumers away from pumpkin spice orange products.
Despite these challenges, my expectation is that pumpkin spice’s popularity will continue for years to come. The growth rate of new product examples may slow, and new flavors may emerge, but the reasons behind its popularity will ensure it does not become a flavor of the past like black walnut or butter pecan.