What the Pumpkin Spice Latte Teaches Us About Scarcity Marketing
Soon you can buy something you’ve been missing.
Do you know what next Tuesday is? It’s not just August 30. It’s the day that the Pumpkin Spice Latte (or “the PSL”) returns to Starbucks’ menu for the fall.
Whether you love it or hate it, you have to pay attention to it.
Why? Not just because people obsess over it. Because it’s estimated that Starbucks has sold over 500 million pumpkin spice lattes since they introduced it in 2003. That’s somewhere around 27 million a year, every year. They’re doing something remarkable, and we can learn from it.
Even though people really like pumpkin spice, flavor alone does not account for all of those sales. If it did, why in the world would Starbucks only sell it in the fall?
Here’s the truth: If they sold it year-round, they might actually ruin the appeal.
Seasonality not only anchors the PSL to a specific time period, but it connects it to the traditions of that time period. Starbucks treats the arrival of this drink like an event. People get the first Pumpkin Spice Latte of the season as a ritual. It’s part of their days for the autumn season and then it’s gone. (There are plenty of other seasonal drinks and flavors, so we can’t say this is the only reason why the pumpkin spice latte is so popular. A lot of things have gone right in marketing, trends, and publicity that have contributed to the success of this drink.)
But the PSL does prove a key marketing principle: Seasonality and scarcity increase the novelty of certain products.
Things that are always available run the risk of becoming commodities that people ignore.
People need to know why it matters that they buy from you, but they also need to know why it matters that they buy from you right now. When you’re making an offer, you shouldn’t have to do any arm-twisting. If you understand what motivates people to buy, there are plenty of genuine reasons to encourage them to purchase today instead of tomorrow. Scarcity provides natural urgency.
Starbucks is smart to limit access to a product that they don’t think will be appreciated in the spring and summer like it is in the fall. A limited time offer is not a gimmick.
As copywriters and marketers, we need to evaluate when and how people will appreciate products the most. Then we can give them fundamentally compelling reasons to pay attention to our offers at certain times.