The lesson every startup can learn from the pumpkin spice latte frenzy

September 23, 2015, 8:24 PM UTC
Courtesy of Starbucks

Answer by Jane Chin on Quora.

Pumpkin spice latte was a “middle way” among popular and/or unique flavors. This ensured a critical minimum (mass) of audience who became evangelists of the product.

Sure, you can develop evangelists for extremes on the spectrum of flavors of your product, but you become limited by the scope of adoption of your product once the evangelists work their magic. The pumpkin spice latte had its evangelists, but was a flavor that most people would be curious about and at least be willing to try, versus something like “licorice spice latte.”

On the other hand, chocolate and caramel flavors also fell in the middle, but there’s not much unique narrative you can develop: enough chocolate and caramel — and spinoffs — exist. You’d have to work extremely hard to come up with a unique and memorable angle to yet another chocolate or caramel flavor.

If you’re a startup, work on the narrative potential of your offering, versus trying to make yet another version of a chocolate-flavored (or caramel or vanilla) product or service. Once you have this:

Err on the side of organic evangelism, not manufactured hype

The pumpkin spice latte comes but once a year. I’m sure I’ve had it at least once, and even though it wasn’t so memorable that I create an annual-repeating calendar event to remind myself to stop by Starbucks (SBUX) because PSL is here, whenever I hear “pumpkin spice latte,” I think, “Wow, autumn is really here,” even more than a peppermint mocha makes me think, “Whoa, winter has arrived.”

Marketing around PSL includes the typical social media hashtag (#PSL) and setting up a product-specific social media account. But PSL evangelism was strong even before the drink had its own social media channels. PSL evangelism isn’t as “in your face” (what I call “manufactured hype”) as Amazon Prime Day was. I remember seeing my Facebook buddies express profound disappointment about Amazon (AMZN) Prime Day, and while I’m not a Prime member, this made me think, “I’m glad I’m not missing much.”

Organic evangelism versus manufactured hype is a double-edged sword, and I think the Starbucks PSL falls more on the side of organic evangelism. When an in-your-face, manufactured-hype event falls short of expectations, customers and fans may experience greater disappointment than a warm-fuzzy feeling around the “spirit of the season” that the PSL’s appearance embodies. The other face of this sword is that in-your-face hype gets more publicity and visibility and more people hear about it.

If you’re a startup, work on developing loyalty around your product or service, then pay attention to the drivers of loyalty for your product/service. Invest energy getting to know your core customers and influencers versus spinning some hype, especially using a we’re-going-to-replace/be-better-than angle (like Amazon Prime Day tried to do).

Aim to inspire a trend

Successful acts beget parodies. Successful products and services beget copycats. Starbucks’ PSL inspired an entire pumpkin spice industry from candies to donuts to (not Starbucks) coffee to alcohol to perfume. Each instance further reinforces the PSL’s mythology as The One Drink To Rule Them All.

No lesson here, other than know that when your startup has inspired copycats and parodies, you have arrived.

This article originally appeared on Quora: What lessons can startups learn from the Pumpkin Spice Latte frenzy that occurs every year?

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