The pumpkin-spice machine is in full seasonal swing. A leading coffee brand, Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte has been regarded by many as the standard-bearer for the arrival of fall and fall flavors. But has widespread criticism of the lack of transparency in Starbucks’ ingredients left a lasting impression on the seasonal flavor as a whole? Infegy analyzed social commentary over the last five years to find out.

Search traffic data from Google Trends reflects that volume is down for all branded versions of Pumpkin Spice lattes. While this trend was readily apparent in our own data, it raises doubts about the residual strength of seasonal beverages to buoy revenue potential. The volume in year-over-year search data suggests that pumpkin spice continues to suffer from negative ingredients coverage in late 2014.

Conversations analyzed in our research tend to indicate similar trends. Consumers tend to talk favorably about branded seasonal beverages, but as already indicated, in much smaller volume as traditionally expected. Conversational volume tends to peak around August or September each year, trailing off quickly. Notably, however, this trend grew from fall 2010 up until last year. In 2014, volumes peaked, but fell off at a much sharper rate. Social conversation volume has not recovered to pre-2014 levels.

Understanding Category Themes

The tone of consumer discussions seems to have shifted as well. Over half of the social conversations we analyzed expressed some degree of “expectation” or anticipation toward branded pumpkin spice lattes, indicating they were excited about the product, but not all conversations were so positive.

While themes related to beverage taste continued to indicate overall positive sentiment, a little over a third of customers had mentioned some degree of avoiding the beverages altogether. Themes related to “Acquisition” and “Cost” indicated an alarming amount of negativity at 36% and 37%, respectively. Across the top three branded pumpkin beverages in the category, Starbucks customers seem the happiest with 73% acquisition positivity compared to McCafé at 60% and Dunkin’ Donuts at 57%. Overall, consumers also indicated less concern over the cost of the Starbucks beverages than the competing beverages.

Interestingly, it seems that the ingredients criticism targeted at Starbucks last year may have driven more concern or reservations among consumers of other brands, even more so than Starbucks’. Brands that attempted to mimic the seasonal popularity trends in Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice seem to lack the resilience consumers apparently afford the coffee giant.

Consumers tended to discuss their purchase intent far more frequently for McCafé, but also did so with a much larger degree of negativity. Significantly, nearly a quarter of conversations discussing McCafé and Dunkin’ Donuts indicated they would never purchase from these brands. If Starbucks’ brand reputation has suffered, this data suggests that its competitors have suffered to an even larger degree.

Identifying Consumer Preferences

Analyzing social conversation data for regional location, we saw Starbucks discussed across a wider combination of regions rather than an individual stronghold in any one particular area. Dunkin’ Donuts, however, seems to remain concentrated primarily in the Northeastern United States.

We checked our location data from conversations analyzed with known service locations for each brand as listed in Google Maps. Starbucks’ density across a wider range of regions enhances its continued dominance over both McCafé and Dunkin’ Donuts. Due to the disparate density of Starbucks and McCafé locations, consumers are more likely to encounter either of these brands than Dunkin’ Donuts, but will also likely purchase Pumpkin Spice beverages from Starbucks rather than McCafé despite their concerns over taste or cost due to the brand’s perceived reputation for quality.

Starbucks seems poised to double down on that perception. Peter Dukes, Starbucks’ Director of Espresso and Brewed Coffee Americas recently announced plans to increase the perceived quality of Pumpkin Spice Lattes all over the country by adding real pumpkin. Seemingly in direct response to a previous lack of transparency, Dukes’ announcement details the entire list of ingredients to be used in this season’s Halloween treat.

Starbucks’ new beverage recipe continues to receive much more press coverage compared to its competitors, and therefore increased social traffic as well. With historical sales volume already above 200 million lattes sold, their Pumpkin Spice Lattes would total revenue nearing the billion-dollar mark. The category’s ability to reach that mark would seem to be rekindling consumers’ seasonal pumpkin-spiced fever with something new and exciting, but not a complete departure. Fortunately for Starbucks, the seasonal excitement around pumpkin beverages seems to be building in its favor once more.

For greater depth, see Infegy's full report: "Social Media Insights for Pumpkin Spiced Latte."

(Image courtesy of Foodista.)