Humans have celebrated autumn for centuries. No civilization celebrated the coming of fall bigger than the Mayans. Mayans notoriously constructed a pyramid with a hidden shadow of a snake, designed to only appear in the fall.


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Centuries later, autumn remains a time for celebration. But, instead of a giant snake, consumers today have zeroed in on a different signal, the arrival of The Pumpkin Spice Latte. As far as consumers are concerned, Pumpkin Spice Latter (or PSL, as the kids call it) stands as the unofficial start-and-finish line of the fall season. But, unlike Halloween or Thanksgiving, it starts earlier than expected and lasts much longer.

The Pumpkin Spice Latte is an inescapable phenomenon. Initially met by so-so reviews in 2003, PSL quickly caught on and kept climbing the popularity ranks. Starbucks considers the pumpkin spice latte the most successful seasonal drink of all time. They also credit PSL for anchoring the public's buying behavior for the rest of the year. The Pumpkin Spice Latte exclusively captures over $100M in revenue each year. Along with back-to-school supplies, it is now synonymous with fall's seasonal shopping.

Moreover, pumpkin spice lattes are available to be exclusively consumed in the fall only. From a business standpoint, the exclusive seasonality makes sense. Scarcity does, after all, lead to demand. But, beyond vanilla economics, there's something else happening here.

The exclusive seasonality also creates a psychological relationship between the drink and the brain. It transforms from "just a drink" to an epochal, psychological experience.

To better understand the phenomenon, we must first learn about the neuroscience of taste and its relation to the brain's memory system.

Putting it bluntly, humans are not good at tasting. Taste is the weakest of all human senses. Moreover, it is the least developed sense in humans and at the bottom of the list for sharpness compared to the rest of the senses. All of the above leaves humans susceptible to strong contextual associations when linked to taste.

Think of taste vs. vision, for instance. The proudest of foodies might experience a dozen unique flavors in 24 hours. Meanwhile, in the same time frame, they would encounter thousands of unique, visual events. The discrepancy in data points sheds light on taste-based memories.

When the brain experiences a unique taste, it takes notice by creating a unique memory-by-association. Where does the association come from? The context. The brain connects the specific taste with the overall context in which the tasting occurred. For example, it considers the time of day, what we were wearing, seeing, hearing, feeling, etc.

Most importantly, for the discussion of pumpkin spice lattes, the brain takes into account the season, in this case, beautiful fall.

Think about it. You see the color green more than you taste mint. So, the taste of mint triggers particular memories in a way seeing the color green does not. This is why taste is closely tied to episodic memory, the memory of specific events or episodes.

What do taste, episodic memory, and pumpkin spice lattes have in common? They collaborate and ossify psychological associations. Two variables in particular play a vital role in building solid associations - exclusivity and repetition.

Think about it. Pumpkin spice lattes are exclusive to the fall season. Having one in April just feels wrong. Next, the tasting ritual repeats annually, which works to boost the strength of the association between taste and memory.

Each purchase of a Pumpkin Spice Latte strengthens the particular association between the flavor of pumpkin spice and the fall season while also returning to mind all of the PSLs from our past. With every cup and sip, the two become linked closer, and the association becomes more indistinguishable (never mind, the launch date of PSL is technically in the summer month of August).

With enough repetition, the brain connects the two to such a degree that consuming a PSL is akin to drinking the fall season (or at least the brain's feeling of the fall season), despite being technically offered in the summer!

These contextual associations have enormous consequences for the consumer world outside of Starbucks. Think about champagne. When do consumers drink champagne? Consumers pop champagne when celebrating. Really, champagne is exclusively consumed at a celebration. Just like the pumpkin spice latte tastes like fall, champagne toasts taste like a celebration.

This is excellent news (and source of revenue) for champagne brands come New Year's Eve, but not so much on the other 364 days of the year. No wonder the pumpkin spice latte has been premiering earlier and earlier every year.

Unlike the PSL, champagne's associations come with a narrower window of monetization opportunity.

Here's where the brain's unique relationship with taste-based memories poses a challenge. Celebrations aside, champagne struggles to fit the contextual association of everyday "regular" drinking occasions. When consumers flop down on the couch on a regular Tuesday night, popping a bottle of bubbly is likely the last thing on the mind (Taco Tuesday, however, is likely to come front of mind for the same reason). The celebratory associations for champagne are too strong , which severely limits the use-case and appeal of champagne.

The trade group French Wine and Food deliberately campaigned to broaden the appropriate context for champagne. Instead of celebratory events, they are associated with spontaneous events instead. The (classically French) campaign slogan says it all, "Unexpected Things Happen In The 'Oui' Hours."

Few competing products, namely high-end microbrew beers, have successfully penetrated the 'celebration' market. Brut IPAs and strong Belgium ales provide alternative options over champagne as the bubbly celebration drink of choice. The alternatives are not shy to mimic the look and feel of champagne either!

Beer brands' strategy should sound familiar. STEP 1 - choose a known context of their target market. STEP 2 - create advertisements that pair the beer inside of the aforementioned context. Think PBR + dive bars or Corona + beaches. In the same way that champagne + celebrations have little objective commonalities, there may be few objective commonalities that beaches and beer have in common. But due to associative, contextual conditioning, the brain still reaches for a Corona when we step on the sand during a beach vacation.

Neuroscience explains why certain foods or certain drinks just feel right at a specific time. The weakest sense of taste leaves the door open for brands who successfully create contextual associations with edible products. Neuro marketing is the craft of applying the principles of neuroscience, like the neuroscience of memory and taste in this case, to marketing. A foundation in neuromarketing is paramount to creating deeply engaging products, experiences, and activations.

How far will brands take neuromarketing? Will consumers catch on? Hard to say for sure. One thing is certain; like the Mayan snake, the pumpkin spice latte will disappear only to return fall after fall. Think of that next time you grab one!

By Prince Ghuman, Contributor

© 2022 Forbes Media LLC. All Rights Reserved

This Forbes article was legally licensed through AdvisorStream.

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