Yes& General

Pumpkin Spice Everything: The Science Behind the Marketing

Molly Mark

There are many ways to measure time… cycles of the earth, sun, moon, and planets; darkness and light; the changing color of leaves. If you’re like me, a busy working mom of two with an early morning Peloton addiction, marking time by Starbucks’ seasonal coffee drink offerings seems about as good a way as any: winter is Peppermint Mocha season; spring is Iced Toasted Vanilla Oatmilk Shaken Espresso season; summer is Nitro season; and fall is, obviously, Pumpkin Spice Latte season. 

In fact, fall 2022 marks the 19th year that Starbucks’ legendary pumpkin spice latte has graced us with its creamy presence and sparked a spicy revolution in seasonal food, beverage, and consumer products. You’ve probably heard the numbers… hundreds of thousands of PSLs sold… hundreds of millions of dollars of pumpkin-flavored1 and scented products consumed ranging from bread and muffins to candles and more. There are many reasons for the blockbuster success of the PSL, and it’s not just excellent marketing and our innate love of sugar (although those both play a role). 

Starbucks' Pumpkin Spice Latte Returning Today (Tuesday). Further Proof  That Time Has No Meaning… – Geeky DaddyThe Surprising History of Pumpkin Spice

The reasons behind the PSL’s outrageous success have been studied extensively. Its seasonal, limited-time availability taps into an instinctual fear of scarcity, or FOMO. Its scent and taste remind us of the holidays and makes us nostalgic for family, friends, celebrations, and generally happier and simpler times—a phenomenon that is intensified because our brains process both smell and memory in the same region.2 The familiar iconography of pumpkins reinforces the association our brains make between the drink and memories evoking nostalgia. Hence, hundreds of millions sold. 

Now, the question becomes, “How can other companies create memory-inducing sensory experiences that evoke nostalgia to promote their own brands, products, and messages?” 

Nostalgia marketing can be an effective tool when applied authentically and delivered to the right audience. Consumer products and media that tap into feelings of nostalgia are experiencing a major surge, with examples like Stranger Things, Karate Kid, Pokemon, and other retro-based content and trends achieving tremendous success at the box office and check-out.  

With Stranger Things, the franchise strikes the perfect balance between nostalgia and originality in its marketing. Millions of viewers tune in to experience the drama-mystery series filled with nostalgic memories of 80s film classics, like E.T. and the Goonies, through its authentic vintage fashion, hairstyles, and title sequence. The franchise effectively targets Millennials, who make up a quarter of the U.S. population.3 Millennials gravitate toward the series as witnesses of the Technology Revolution and longingly reminisce on the times when “kids actually went outside and rode bikes.”4  

In addition to drawing on our yearning for “simpler times,” which enables us to develop a positive association with the thing that makes us feel nostalgic, studies have shown that nostalgia-based emotions make us more willing to donate or spend money, further strengthening the argument for this approach.5  

So, while PSL season is only three months out of the year, companies can promote their own brands year-round by applying some of the same principles that Starbucks has used to sell hundreds of millions of PSLs. By creating authentic sensory, nostalgia-evoking content and experiences, brands can help consumers and audiences draw positive associations with their products and messages. 

Yes& has successfully employed this approach, and many others, on behalf of numerous clients over the years. One recent example is the winter fundraising gala we organized on behalf of AFCEA DC at the end of 2021. The gala was the first in-person event that AFCEA DC held since the global outbreak of COVID-19, and it was imperative for the Yes& team to design a successful event to show members of the AFCEA community and beyond that it is possible to gather safely in the post-COVID environment and to reinvigorate an important opportunity for AFCEA DC members, stakeholders, and sponsors to reconnect.  

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Tapping into a sense of nostalgia for “simpler times,”—pre-COVID—that many of us have felt since March 2020, the Yes&/AFCEA DC team balanced caution (requiring proof of vaccination status and with many wearing festive masks) with an old-time-y “beforetimes” vibe which was established by creating an authentic European winter market scene and adding carefully curated nostalgic, but tailored, elements like massive gingerbread structures modeled after the Smithsonian museums. Food and beverage offerings included seasonal holiday treats like iced gingerbread cookies, gingerbread martinis, hot toddies, and apple-spiced drinks which transported attendees—through their senses—to a magical beforetimes winter wonderland experience.  

Not every marketing campaign or tactic brings with it the opportunity to engage with audience members in person, which arguably expands opportunities to incorporate sensory association and evoke memories and feelings of nostalgia; however, a sense of nostalgia can be created in a remote setting as well through the use of thoughtful and tailored design elements and messages. Yes& created an opportunity to do this for the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) through its award-winning “Keep Home” campaign which centered on developing visual content and messages that spoke uniquely and personally to local needs and conditions, and to individuals’ and families’ needs to protect the things that make their community special. By incorporating hyper-local features and aspects into the content and messaging—the kind of thing that ONLY a local would know—the ads resonated with audiences as being authentic and allowed them to connect with the content on an emotional level.  

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At the end of the day, when people connect with content, they want to be part of it. They want to buy the product, contribute to the cause, or participate in the event. By creating authentic connections based on nostalgia and sensory associations, brands can reposition themselves in the eyes of consumers and audiences in meaningful ways.


[1] Ad Age

[2] CNN

[3] Forbes

[4] Social Media Today

[5] Harvard Business Review 

Yes& is the Washington, DC-based marketing agency that brings commercial, association, and government clients the unlimited power of “&” – using a full suite of branding, digital, event, marketing, public relations, and creative capabilities to deliver meaningful and measurable results.

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Molly Mark
Vice President, Strategic Communications