October 31, 2023
10 min

2023 State of Pumpkin Spice Report

We surveyed Americans to figure out if pumpkin spice is a true consumer preference or an overhyped marketing gimmick.
Research

Pumpkin spice candles. Pumpkin spice cookies. Pumpkin spice lip balm. Pumpkin spice sleep powder. Pumpkin spice poo-pourri. 

And, of course, the reigning champion: Pumpkin spice latte. 

20 years ago, Starbucks opened Pandora’s box by combining whole milk, espresso, and their signature pumpkin spice syrup—made up of sugar, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and pumpkin puree (pumpkin was added to the secret sauce as recently as 2015 after an outcry from the public)—to create fall’s most iconic drink. 

Since then, consumer demand for pumpkin spice has grown tremendously: According to data from NielsonIQ, the market for pumpkin flavor is worth over $802 million. And not only has the flavor gained capital currency, it’s also become a cultural phenomenon. 

In honor of two decades of pumpkin spice mania, we paired up with Harris Quest, a suite of research tools for marketers, to answer a few piping hot questions about the current state of pumpkin spice. 

Is pumpkin spice just an overrated marketing play? Do die-hard pumpkin spicers wish that the flavor was on shelves 365 days a year? 

Using QuestDIY—a research tool that allows users to create and launch surveys in just minutes—we built a target audience, created a survey (using generative AI), launched the survey, and received results in less than three hours

We surveyed 1,000 Americans representing the general population, and here’s what the results showed. 

33% of people think pumpkin spice is overrated

“It’s nearly fall,” Ryan Reynolds says in a recent ad promoting Negroni Week 2023. “Which means the entire universe will once again be losing its mind for pumpkin spice.” 

*Cue Swiftie-level screaming fanatic in the background*

Reynolds proceeds to tell the audience how to make a negroni, cuing bitter red liqueur and Aviation Gin (his brand).

Then? 

“Take a pumpkin spice cinnamon stick…and shove it right up your ass,” he says, throwing the stick at the camera.  

Reynolds continues to make a negroni, using the time it takes to stir the classic cocktail to rail on the obsession everyone has with pumpkin spice. 

Here, Reynolds is playing off what I’d call pumpkin spice fatigue, this exhaustion some have with the ubiquity and obsession over pumpkin spice during September, October, and November—and let’s be honest, August, if your name is Ashleigh and you’re wearing a tan felt hat and over-the-knee boots.  

Using QuestDIY, we found that while 62% of respondents think the hype around pumpkin spice is just right, 33% think it’s overrated—and 6% think it’s underrated.

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We solved the Great Pumpkin Spice Divide in under three hours.

Curious how QuestDIY could work for you? Request a demo.

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I think we can guess where Reynolds would have voted here. 

The group most likely to fall into Reynolds’s camp on the matter? Respondents 65 and over, who were by far the most likely to say that pumpkin spice as a whole was overrated at 40%. Only 21% of the youngest age group (18-24), for comparison, said they think the flavor is overrated. 

This generational divide isn’t too surprising. Research shows that even the most sugar- obsessed adult likely can’t indulge in the same amount of sugar as a child could. And the health impacts of drinking very sugary beverages become more pronounced as one ages. 

At 50g of sugar for the medium size of a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte, the beverage contains the same amount of sugar as two packs of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, 11g more sugar than a can of Coca Cola, and more than 11 times the amount of sugar in a date. 

Ultimately, though, it seems folks are pretty on board with pumpkin spice so far. Reynolds aside, the majority find the amount of hype to be just right. 

Smell > Taste

I want to do a quick exercise—and let’s put the pumpkin spice latte (fondly referred to as a PSL) at the center of it. 

With the PSL in mind, I am going to make some notes on the following: taste, smell, appearance, value for money, and product variety.

Taste: Creamy, sugary, spicy. Notes of pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. A hint of coffee, and a heavy presence of milk. 

Smell: Generous coffee notes paired with spicy, nutty aromas. Sweet but complex.

Appearance: Since a PSL is often in an opaque cup, the appearance is oftentimes more about the cup’s surroundings, curated by its drinker. The PSL is famous for being photographed in pumpkin patches or among autumnal foliage.  

Value for money: A medium (grande) PSL is $6.45, or $7.02 with tax in New York City. A grande black coffee for comparison costs $3.76, and my usual (a large iced coffee with extra ice and a splash of almond milk) is $5.17 (both with tax).

Product variety: In terms of pumpkin spice flavored beverages at Starbucks, you can order a regular, iced, or blended PSL, an iced pumpkin cream chai tea latte, pumpkin cream cold brew—and at special reserve locations, you may even find a pumpkin spice whiskey barrel-aged iced latte or a pumpkin spice espresso martini. Pretty good variety. 

We asked respondents to rate the above aspects of pumpkin spice on a scale ranging from poor to excellent. Starting with the highest scoring, here’s the percentage of respondents that rated each product aspect as either “very good” or “excellent”: smell (66%), taste (48%), product variety (47%), appearance (46%), value for money (26%).  

Despite what people think about the cost or taste of pumpkin spice, very few can argue that it doesn’t smell amazing. Only 2% of respondents rated the smell as “poor.”

Looking to investigate the pumpkin spice craze from a more scientific perspective, Psychology Today published a piece on why pumpkin spice has such a grasp on us. While some of it probably isn’t surprising (like the fact that fall is associated with holidays people love, it feels nostalgic, and the cooler weather lessens irritability), they also noted that some of the most prominent flavors in pumpkin spice (cinnamon and nutmeg) have proven aphrodisiac properties, and nutmeg has even been shown to have an antidepressant-like effect. 

So maybe there’s something deeper to our preference for the smell and taste for pumpkin spice. 

As far as some of the lower performing aspects, value for money is something that not only came up in this question on our QuestDIY survey, but many respondents also wrote about cost when asked what changes they would make to make pumpkin spice more appealing. 

“Lower the price on everything,” one respondent said. “Lattes are too expensive.” “It seems to be a bit overpriced, and in today’s economy sometimes it costs too much to buy.” 

From our exercise above, the cost of a PSL is also something that sticks out to me. A PSL costs almost double a regular coffee of the same size—even a regular latte is over a dollar cheaper. The scarcity of the product and its limited time in stores makes it more of a commodity than other Starbucks products. This is likely the case across other product categories as well. 

People will pay for pumpkin spice knowing its time is limited. 

Respondents viewed pumpkin spice as both a trendy marketing strategy and a genuine consumer preference

Over $800 million was spent in the pumpkin spice market during the 52-week period ending in late July of this year. It’s no surprise that the flavor has the potential to be a cash cow for CPG brands looking for a flash-in-the-pan viral moment. 

And brands like energy bar producer RXBar, household product seller Grove Collaborative, and cereal brand Three Wishes are just a few companies whose success with the flavor has shown up in the numbers over the last couple of years. 

“Last year, we had consumers driving across state lines to find stores that carried pumpkin spice,” Margaret Wishingrad, co-founder and CEO of Three Wishes told Modern Retail. From the success they saw in 2021, they expanded their pumpkin offering in 2022 to Whole Foods, Sprouts, and on Amazon.

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Market Research When You’re (French-)Pressed for Time

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Psychologist Matt Johnson recognizes how the fall/pumpkin spice connection we all experience is really a product marketing success. The message that fall means it’s pumpkin spice time is built into our medial temporal lobe—the part of the brain responsible for creating connections between things—at this point. 

Marketers “have successfully associated fall with pumpkin spice to such an extent that we can’t really have one without the other—the association impacts perception itself,” he says. 

But how aware are consumers of this phenomenon? Are they even thinking about it? 

While 29% of people we surveyed think of it purely as a trendy marketing strategy, 63% of respondents think it is a genuine consumer preference (46% of that group acknowledges that it is also a marketing strategy). 

And I think the 45% who view it as both a consumer preference and a marketing strategy are probably the closest to being right here. 

The numbers don’t lie: Consumers love pumpkin spice. They purchase it, they look forward to it, they will drive across state lines for it. 

Ignoring this fact wouldn’t make any sense for brands that have the ability to create seasonal releases that capitalize on consumers’ love of the flavor. Even in down years (like this one), the pumpkin spice effect is real.

It’s pumpkin spice-365 for 27% of respondents

As we’ve discovered, pumpkin spice’s limited availability creates a market for the flavor that gets some consumers on board with higher price points.  

And the Psychology Today article we discussed earlier also highlights that we have a collective scarcity mindset when it comes to pumpkin spice. The fact that it is here today and gone tomorrow pushes consumers to participate, get excited, and create more hype around the flavor than they do around something like…vanilla. 

But if given the choice, would people opt in to year-round pumpkin spice? 

We asked the people so you don’t have to. 

27% of people want pumpkin spice all year. Seasonality be damned, they want to sip a PSL when the cherry blossoms are blooming and while dripping sweat at a summer swim meet. 

Over half of respondents like things the way they are—58% of people prefer that pumpkin spice stays in its lane. And 15% of respondents are pure pumpkin spice naysayers. They don’t want it to appear at all. 

27% of people want pumpkin spice all year. Seasonality be damned, they want to sip a PSL when the cherry blossoms are blooming and while dripping sweat at a summer swim meet. 

The group most excited about the potential for pumpkin spice-365? The 18-24 age group, where 32% of participants want to extend the seasonal favorite’s shelf life. 

Let’s put it to a vote

Has it gone too far? Is two decades of pumpkin spice mania enough for Americans to throw in the towel and look for a new fall favorite? 

Some data shows small declines in the number of pumpkin spice products bought over the last year (this decline does not correlate to a decline in overall money spent on the products, however). So maybe we are reaching collective fatigue of pumpkin spice. 

Or are we? 

We used QuestDIY to ask American consumers to vote. Do you love pumpkin spice, or do you hate pumpkin spice? Of those who decided to cast a hypothetical ballot (versus stay home), 85% voted love, and 15% voted hate. 

That’s a pretty overwhelming pro-pumpkin spice majority. 

At the end of the day, pumpkin spice is collectively wired into our cultural consciousness. No matter the fate of the PSL, fall will never be fall without pumpkins—and the history of the gourd is deep. 

The whole reason pumpkin came onto the map during fall in the first place was because it was one of the first North American crops grown for human consumption. One of the earliest American recipes (published in the early 1670’s) was a pumpkin side dish. Around a century later, the first pumpkin pie recipe that resembles what we think of the dessert today appeared in American Cookery

The abundance of pumpkins in the North American fall didn’t only influence the food Americans eat—it also influenced traditions we’ve held onto since the early 19th century, like carving pumpkins around Halloween and visiting pumpkin patches with our families. 

If Starbucks fell off the face of the earth tomorrow, pumpkins would remain. And as long as there are pumpkins, there will be pumpkin pie at the Thanksgiving table, dusted in the spices that make the PSL a fall favorite for many. 

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QuestDIY helps you answer piping hot questions.

Request a demo of QuestDIY.

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Sarah Dotson

Sarah Dotson is the Editorial Content Manager for Stagwell Marketing Cloud.

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