Angie McKenzie says that she and her team at Starbucks never knew the Pumpkin Spice Latte would be such a hit when they created it.
At first, it didn’t test well with consumers. Her team faced problems they had to take into account to refine the product, like texture and taste; the PSL was trying to penetrate a market that had not previously seen anything like it.
“We had to lean into the fact that [the Pumpkin Spice Latte] was going to be unusual for some people, so there was some risk taking involved in launching that product,” McKenzie said. “That risk really paid off — it stood out as something different in [Starbucks’] portfolio and something different in the marketplace, so much so that it sort of tapped into the zeitgeist that kicked off all these different iterations of that flavor across categories,” she said.
Through measured problem-solving tactics and a bit of risk, the product went to market and became a success, with a (slightly updated) version of the Pumpkin Spice Latte remaining a market leader nearly 20 years later; Starbucks has sold over 400 million Pumpkin Spice Lattes since 2003, according to some estimates.
McKenzie and her Background
McKenzie worked at Starbucks from 1995 to 2008, where she worked in product development and design management and helped to innovate on a variety of different products, including the Pumpkin Spice Latte, frappuccinos, and other seasonal lattes, like Starbucks’ gingerbread latte.
She spent a significant portion of her career working at the National Food Lab, where she consulted with large food and beverage companies to help with product development, innovation, and more.
“I got to have that perspective of being in house at Starbucks of what it’s like to be on the client side, and creating new products and new processes on the client side. And also what it’s like to work with all different kinds of companies and see the different types of challenges they face when they’re working on new ideas,” she said.
Now, she works part time as a consultant.
Lessons Learned from the Creation of the PSL
Crafting a story and vision will help guide the end result.
McKenzie said when she and her team worked on creating the Pumpkin Spice Latte, they had an experience in mind for the customer.
“We talked about [customers] coming in our stores, and picking up that drink, and having that first sip transport you to another place to cue the beginning of the season,” she said. “We were tapping into nostalgia. We knew what the experience was that we wanted customers to have.”
She said keeping track of that story throughout all stages of the production process is important, too. Innovators should be asking themselves whether they’ve stayed true to the story their team initially laid out, and whether the product actually has that desired impact.
We talked about [customers] coming in our stores, and picking up that drink, and having that first sip transport you to another place to cue the beginning of the season.
Have the courage to admit when there’s a problem.
McKenzie said that with most product development, the team will experience some bumps and twists, but that innovators shouldn’t ignore them.
The team had identified a problem with the product: its texture. The prototype of the PSL didn’t have the right level of creaminess, she said.
“When we were working on prototypes for the Pumpkin Spice Latte, the product wasn’t delivering anything special in the cup,” she said. “The flavor seemed flat and not differentiated from other products in our portfolio — like Gingerbread Latte — or from what the competition could make with an off-the shelf-syrup. Some of us continued to believe the concept had potential. The clock was ticking on our timeline. We had to choose: abandon the idea or find a way to solve the problem.”
McKenzie’s team asked uncomfortable questions, identified what wasn’t working well, and spent time making adjustments to come up with a better product once they realized that what they had been working on would not live up to their initial expectations.
Get immersed in the experience you’re trying to create.
As someone who has spent much of her career creating and consulting on food and beverage products, McKenzie said it’s important to try creating flavor profiles true to what the product is based on.
In the case of the Pumpkin Spice Latte, McKenzie and her team spent time in the lab product testing some fall favorites, in an attempt to make the product creamier.
“For us, it was going into the lab with a fresh-baked [pumpkin] pie, and cranking up the espresso machine, and just tasting what the food really tastes like — not all the different versions that we’ve created — and comparing and contrasting to step back and deconstruct the problem and start over again.”
But even once McKenzie and her team had identified that the PSL lacked the creaminess of a pumpkin pie, it seemed daunting to fix the problem.
“We didn’t see how we could deliver the smooth texture using the syrup delivery system we were expected to use. It felt like a dealbreaker. But when we asked ourselves, ‘How might we do this?’, the answer emerged. I suggested to my product development partner a different base system from another product that would enable us to deliver the signature creamy mouthfeel. We grabbed the other product off the shelf in the lab and started mocking it up. It was a rough prototype built on something we already had, but we knew we had a viable solution,” she said.
Sometimes, big wins come from a small tweak to something familiar.
“I think people try really hard to have a big win, and so when they’re looking at their ideas and evaluating their ideas, nothing really ever feels like a big win, right?” McKenzie said. “Sometimes those big wins come from a small twist on something really familiar.”
Had McKenzie’s team not been able to tweak the creaminess by using an already existing product, she said she’s not confident the PSL would have worked out at all.
During her time at Starbucks, McKenzie worked on a variety of drinks, including Starbucks’ gingerbread latte, which also helped establish a precedent for the creation of the PSL.
“There would be probably no Pumpkin Spice Latte without the gingerbread latte, because it laid [the] foundation of how latte flavors are done,” she said.
I think people try really hard to have a big win, and so when they’re looking at their ideas and evaluating their ideas, nothing really ever feels like a big win, right?
And while other companies had created pumpkin spice syrups and other products prior to the release of the PSL, McKenzie said the product was designed to rise above that crowd, both in flavor profile, and by creating an experience.
Iterating an Already Successful Product
McKenzie said even though the original Pumpkin Spice Latte turned out to be a huge success, the brand still had to keep up with consumer demands over time.
The first iteration of the Pumpkin Spice Latte didn’t have real pumpkin in it, but it does now, McKenzie said.
“If you ask customers, ‘Do you want pumpkin in your coffee?’ They would probably tell you no. Right? Do you want pumpkin spice in your coffee? They would say, ‘No, I don’t want that.’ McKenzie said. “But years after [it has] been on the market, they’re like, ‘We accept this so much that we now have a greater expectation of what we want it to be.'”
She said she attributes that demand partly to market trends.
“There are also factors in the market in general… wanting to understand more deeply what was in their products, and greater authenticity around what they were consuming,” she said. “The same customer that tasted [the product] in 2003 is not necessarily the same customer who consumed it in 2010, [or today].”
She said Starbucks’ expansion into other pumpkin spice-flavored products also represents further innovation with a successful product. It has expanded the pumpkin flavor profile into its other beverages and some of its baked goods, too. The brand also offers pumpkin spice-flavored products in its retail lines. The fall items began appearing in Starbucks stores on August 30 this year, several weeks before the fall solstice.
Thoughts on Challenges for the Food and Beverage Industry
McKenzie said she sees two major challenges facing today’s innovators across the food and beverage industries: cutting through the noise to reach consumers, and established company cultures.
If you do not have a culture that embraces that creativity, that rewards questioning and bold thinking, that accepts failure, then all your best thinking and your best ideas can die on the vine.
Today’s consumer has a wide variety of choices, so innovators need to be strategic in what they latch onto when attempting to cater to the consumer, she said. She said companies should remain consumer centric, while considering how to tell a product and brand story.
A real threat for innovators can be company culture — without a supportive culture, many innovation initiatives fail, she said.
“Oftentimes, companies do not have a shortage of ideas. … What they have is a lack of strategy by which to view those ideas. And they often have a broken culture that stifles creative thinking,” she said. “If you do not have a culture that embraces that creativity, that rewards questioning and bold thinking, that accepts failure, then all your best thinking and your best ideas can die on the vine,” she said.