The leaves don’t change colors in all regions of the United States, but autumn does bring with it some certainties: cooler weather, football and going back to school. In recent years, we’ve come to associate autumn with another phenomenon: pumpkin spice products. Consumer interest in all things pumpkin has reached new heights. Nielsen reports that pumpkin-flavored products accounted for $308 million in food and beverage sales in 2013, up 13.5% from the year before. That’s a strong performance for a food and beverage trend that is considered seasonal.
In 2012, 12.4 million hundredweight (cwt) of pumpkins were harvested in the United States, up from 10.7 million cwt the year before, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. This increase in production is surprising when you consider that most pumpkin-themed packaged goods don’t contain any actual pumpkin. This is true, of course, for the most famous of pumpkin spice products said to be responsible for starting the trend in 2003: Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte. Last year, Starbucks reported it had sold more than 200 million pumpkin lattes since launching the now-famous espresso drink.
This year, pumpkin offerings have all but reached a fever pitch. As consumers clamor for more spice, availability of pumpkin-flavored goods has quietly crept into August and extended into late winter. Trader Joe’s has dedicated an entire end cap to their ever-expanding line of pumpkin products. Coffee shops across the country are practically in a pumpkin arms race. Grocery offerings include everything from the logical and obvious—pumpkin spice coffee creamer and pancake mix—to the downright absurd—pumpkin spice e-cigarettes and dog food.
It seems many brands are taking a chance on pumpkin. But just like everything in the store, flavor trends have a shelf life. Should brands be preparing themselves for an inevitable pumpkin burnout?
Survey says no. We tested a number of the latest pumpkin goods with a nationally representative audience of shoppers and found high consumer interest across the board. Everything from Pumpkin Spice Instant Quaker Oatmeal to Pumpkin Spice Jif Peanut Butter garnered high purchase intent scores in our testing platform. All eight of the pumpkin products we tested earned top two box scores of 50% or above, meaning that at least half of all respondents in each study said they definitely or probably would buy the product. In some cases, the scores were much higher. Pillsbury Grands! Pumpkin Spice Rolls earned a score of 68%, while the much buzzed Pumpkin Spice Oreos received a score of 57%.
A closer look at the data reveals that the pumpkin products tested were most popular among the 18-34-year-old demographic, which suggests that for many years to come, producers could have a built-in audience with a penchant for pumpkin. Why is the Millennial generation so obsessed with this flavor? A quick glance at the open-end responses shows that alongside “pumpkin” and “love,” “fall” is one of the most commonly used words in explanations of why they like the product. It would seem that pumpkin products evoke strong emotions in consumers about time and memories, which may be why most of these products are less concerned with presenting an authentic pumpkin flavor as they are with communicating the spices and smells people commonly associate with autumn.
Seasonality has to be considered when going to market with any product, but never has a single flavor profile been so successful across such a broad range of categories. Its adaptability is, in part, what contributes to its success, as consumers continue to be excited each fall about any new and creative applications. For brands, the takeaways are clear: infatuation with pumpkin means consumers will at least be curious enough to try your product. And for a limited edition or seasonal run, a one-time sampling may be all you need to boost end-of-year sales. For brand managers, it may be time to jump on the pumpkin-wagon and start thinking about how this versatile flavor can extend their product lines.