Starbucks and the Pumpkin Spice Cult on Social Media

Is the pumpkin spice latte the most popular beverage on social media?

It's quite possible.


Fall is unofficially here. #PSL ✨🍂🎃

A post shared by Starbucks Coffee ☕ (@starbucks) on

There are two categories of people in this world: those who are counting down the days every year until pumpkin spice season hits, and those who can't stand the gimmicky flavor profile. The pumpkin spice latte —or PSL, for the connoisseurs— was made popular by java giant Starbucks, and it has since took on a life of its own thanks to the kind of hype that can be created through social media promotion.

The fact that some Starbucks drinks are seasonal makes their existence even more of a novelty. But there's no need to plan a whole social media campaign around the PSL since die hards are already aboard the promo train. The beverage's periodic recurrence generates major buzz, but also induces feelings of nostalgia when it comes back around. After all, it's a representative fall figure with a pumpkin flavor, and people have emotional connections to things like pumpkin pie, helping Starbucks to create those deep relationships with consumers.

The pumpkin spice latte has become a veritable equinox symbol, on par with foliage, sweater weather, and apple picking. It's impossible to deny that it's now engrained in our culture and will forever be associated to that back-to-school reboot. It's even crossed the Starbuck borders, too: coffee shops everywhere are now offering their own version of the autumnal brew. And that presents a major social media strategy opportunity for the originator of the cult.

Starbucks' Instagram marketing performance is reflective of a clear social media content strategy that serves to tell the coffee giant's brand story. Its posting frequency is steady and consistent with an average of 6 per week, whereas the brand's engagement rate currently sits at a really impressive 1.38% (most large brands are under 1%). It's especially remarkable considering that the account boasts over 15 million followers, aka the type that doesn't typically rack up a high percentage of double-taps.

The social team uses a healthy amount of UGC —a winning practice that helps the brand foster its online community through customer storytelling— which reinforces the chain's familial feels. In fact, since the end of August, Starbucks posted 17 pieces of UGC to its Instagram account, leaving its average engagement rate in the dust: this set of images racked up an average of 2.09%. That's what we would call pretty amazing Instagram engagement.
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But driving the tale of America's most acute habit with displays of its famous cup containing the store's ubiquitous brew is not the only thing Starbucks does well on social. It also uses Instagram to announce new product launches and availabilities.

This is smart for a lot of reasons, but there are two that particularly stand out: for one, it spreads awareness about menu additions; for two, it generates hype and encourages social fans to capture and post their own images with the latest and greatest Starbucks concoction. Which brings us back to the pumpkin spice latte point.

With the Starbucks Instagram audience already primed for consuming and creating user-generated content, as well as expecting up-to-date information about beverage releases, the PSL cult was able to explode. The channel essentially inflates buzz because it facilitates shareability. The more people are talking about something, the more excitement builds around it, and the more it gets elevated onto a pedestal of ubiquity.

The proof is in the numbers: static PSL content published on the Starbucks Instagram account this season outperformed its average engagement by almost double, coming in altogether at 2.11%. This does not include video posts because those generally underperform (unless you're in the business of extreme sports, beauty, or fitness), and including them here would be like comparing apples to oranges.
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If Starbucks wanted to continue on this streak of PSL buildup while forging ahead with its brand-building UGC posts, the social team could pool from the inordinate amount of earned content they receive tags for on the daily. Through Dash Hudson's Vision platform, the coffee company would be able to source the predicted top performing content for its own feed. All while both building on hype and including consumers.

For example, these lovely pumpkin-filled shots and the ones in the thumbnails below. Quality + performance assurance. Win-win.
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Indeed, when we look at Starbucks' own content segments that represent the best opportunity for the brand's Instagram account, the pursuit for the aforementioned types of posts becomes a no-brainer. What the below graph indicates is that these images score the highest engagement, but are less utilized. Sounds like an opportunity to us!
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Digital mediums like Instagram are perfect channels for brands to build on momentum with seasonal products or services. The 'Gram's visual focus and in-the-moment nature make it the ideal hype conduit. With the PSL's large cult following, the Starbucks team could go really deep on displays of its famous beverage to keep the crowds riled up over it. Until the holiday cups surface, of course.


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